Analysis | It’s time to nominate a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine
The Biden administration must move quickly to nominate and confirm a U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. Without one, the United States engages Ukraine and Russia with one hand tied behind its back. Having a Senate-confirmed ambassador to Ukraine is important not because he or she will be able to solve this crisis with Russia, but because it sends another important message to the Ukrainian government that the United States sees maintaining Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty as a key national security objective.
Although the Biden administration has repeatedly promised that “America is back,” following President Trump’s isolationist policies, they have sometimes struggled to effectively prove that. Major European powers were frustrated with Biden disregarding their concerns prior to making some key decisions, such as the abandonment of the Bagram airfield or announcement of the Australia-UK-US (“AUKUS”) submarine deal. Although some oversights and errors can be understood given a complex environment, both domestically and internationally, the administration’s reticence to nominate ambassadors to key countries is surprising.
In particular, it remains a mystery why, despite 96 nominated and appointed ambassadors, the Biden administration has yet to nominate an ambassador to Ukraine. Biden has reportedly selected Ambassador Bridget Brink, the current U.S. ambassador to Slovakia for the position, and Kyiv has approved the pick. But the administration has not officially announced the appointment, a curious move in the light of the unjustified and unprovoked Russian invasion of Ukraine.
One of the reasons why Biden might not have chosen to nominate an Ambassador to Ukraine could be the fact that the United States no longer has diplomatic presence in Ukraine, and consequently an ambassador will not be able to be present in the country. Even though it might seem that there is no need for an ambassador in a country that has no U.S. diplomatic presence, the case of Belarus proves the opposite. U.S. Ambassador to Belarus Julie D. Fisher was refused a visa by Belarus authorities and consequently had to relocate to Lithuania as a U.S. Special Envoy for Belarus. Even though Ambassador Fisher is unable to serve in Belarus she uses her rank and title to draw attention to the Lukashenka regime’s crackdown on democracy and repression. Considering that the Biden team regularly worked overtime to share information about Putin’s hostile intentions with the public, it is even more concerning that more effort has not been put in ensuring that the president’s envoy to Ukraine is confirmed.
The Senate blockade is no longer a valid excuse
This delay in nominating an envoy to a top crisis zone is difficult to explain. The administration has long blamed the Senate for holding up President Biden’s ambassadorial nominations. Although the confirmation process has often been stymied by the blockade imposed by Senator Cruz (R-TX) and Hawley (R-MO), Senator Cruz himself has publicly called for President Biden to fast-track an ambassador to Ukraine.
The absence of a Senate-confirmed ambassador is especially concerning as the last U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine,Marie Yovanovitch, was forced to leave the post on May 6, 2019 in the wake of Trump’s first impeachment trial. Even within the ranks of the president’s own party, there is increasing pressure for Biden to nominate someone to the post. Senator Shaheen (D-NH) emphasized that it is important to have “a U.S. ambassador seated in Kyiv to support our Ukrainian partners at this critical moment.”
Why do ambassadors matter?
Ambassadors have an important symbolic role as hand-picked personal representatives of the president. While career diplomats and chargés d’affaires can perform all the duties of the senate-confirmed envoy, they do not have the legitimacy and credibility of ambassadors, who are seen as being able to speak personally for the president.
Chargés d’affaires also do not have access to the highest echelons of host governments. Diplomatic protocol often restricts chargés d’affaires from meeting senior officials in the host countries. This effectively means that without an ambassador, the United States could face barriers to meeting directly with Ukraine’s top officials in the midst of a Russian invasion. Of course, diplomatic protocol is often sidelined in times of crisis and the U.S. officials are in constant contact with Ukraine’s senior officials, with President Biden regularly speaking with Ukraine’s President Zelensky. However, the symbolics of a Senate confirmed Ambassador can go a long way in signaling to Ukrainian people the U.S. commitment to Ukraine would certainly not harm U.S. efforts in Ukraine.s
If critical foreign policy and national security roles continue to be unfilled, the central pillars of Biden’s foreign policy agenda and effectiveness in responding to the national security challenges will be impeded. President Biden has been doing a great job in supporting Ukraine by providing military and economic aid, imposing sanctions on Russia, and coordinating an unprecedented united allied response to the Russian aggression. However, the longer Biden waits to nominate an ambassador to Ukraine, the longer his administration’s commitment to reestablish the United States’ international leadership will remain in question.
Now is the time to nominate and fast-tracked an ambassador to Ukraine.
Luka Ignac is McHenry and Huffington Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy at Georgetown University. His research focuses on transatlantic relations and EU-NATO dynamics.
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