May 8, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Biden admin accelerates plans to reopen Kyiv embassy

The U.S. charge d'affaires in seen walking through the streets of Lviv, Ukraine, last week.

Kristina Kvien (center), chargé d'affaires of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, walks through Lviv, Ukraine, last week. She also visited Kyiv on Sunday. Photo: Yuriy Dyachyshyn/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is accelerating plans to reopen the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, a senior State Department official told Axios, part of an increasingly bold and potentially risky approach to the Russia-Ukraine war.

Why it matters: Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told his Ukrainian counterpart that this progress — marked by Kiev Embassy charge d'affaires Kristina Kvien's visit Sunday to commemorate V-E Day — is "a testament to Ukraine's success [and] Moscow's failure" in the early phase of Vladimir Putin's war, the senior official told Axios.

  • It's the culmination of a behind-the-scenes effort led by Blinken to have U.S. diplomats return to Kyiv at the earliest possible date after their evacuation in the weeks before Russia's invasion on Feb. 24.
  • "The secretary relayed to his senior team and to [Ukrainian] Foreign Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba that our return to Kyiv is a testament to Ukraine's success, Moscow's failure and our effective and enduring partnership with the government and people of a sovereign, democratic and free Ukraine," said the senior official.

Between the lines: These bold statements from the Biden administration are not without risk.

U.S. officials are keenly aware President Putin has his pride and identity at stake with his invasion of Ukraine.

  • A humiliating defeat is not an option for him. Senior Biden officials want to avoid a situation in which Putin feels like his own survival, or the survival of his regime, is threatened.
  • In that "existential" scenario, Putin may resort to the most extreme measures, including the use of nuclear weapons, according to sources familiar with the sensitive discussions inside the administration.

The recent leaks of extremely sensitive information from the Biden administration have seriously concerned senior officials including, reportedly, the president himself.

  • President Biden was reportedly "livid" about recent stories reporting that U.S. targeting intelligence has helped Ukraine kill Russian generals, according to the New York Times' Thomas Friedman.
  • And after an NBC News report in which anonymous U.S. officials took credit for helping sink the Moskva, Russia's flagship warship, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby slammed the leaks as "manifestly unhelpful."

Behind the scenes: When Putin attacked, some senior U.S. officials privately expected Kyiv to fall within days. It didn't.

The Ukrainian military has fought bravely and outperformed many analysts' expectations — making the war increasingly costly for the Russian president.

  • When Blinken met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last month in Kyiv, he promised his team would return to the capital city promptly.
  • Blinken "instructed his team — including undersecretary for management John Bass and our diplomatic security team — to work closely with [Kvien] to make it happen, consistent with the safety and security imperatives," the senior official told Axios.
  • Blinken privately discussed the plan with Biden, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and national security adviser Jake Sullivan. The logistical conversations have intensified during the past two weeks.

What to watch: Russia's May 9 holiday commemorating the Soviet Union's defeat of Nazi Germany is viewed as an especially sensitive moment in which Putin could dramatically escalate his assault on Ukraine.

  • Western governments announced new sanctions on Sunday and were engaged in a flurry of activity as part of an effort to counter Russia's propaganda surrounding its Victory Day celebration on Monday.
  • In addition to U.S. diplomats visiting Kyiv on Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and first lady Jill Biden made surprise visits themselves.
  • Biden traveled to Uzhhorod, Ukraine, where she met with Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska. Trudeau visited Irpin, Ukraine.
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