Why U.S. Diplomats in Ukraine Are a Key Signal to Russia

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Washington currently is being consumed by two versions of Ukraine. One asks whether Russia’s backfoot or as dangerously as ever. Each could be true. The U.S. diplomats about to reenter the country—and the Marines protecting them—are the Americans most likely to find themselves at immediate risk.

Plenty in Washington were parsing Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s words in Poland carefully when he said Monday morning that U.S. diplomats would be returning to Ukraine after a two-month absence. Others have restored diplomats in Kyiv to their countries, which is a subtle nod to Russia’s attempt to seize the Ukrainian capital. While there are ongoing attacks, it appears that Russia’s attention is now on other cities.

The decision to bring back U.S. diplomats into the country will undoubtedly be studied with interest by historians. The most immediate predicate is a still-neutral United States keeping its diplomats in Europe at the start of World War II, often placing markers like U.S. flags on the roofs of buildings in the hopes German forces wouldn’t attack them in the war’s early days. This rarely worked.

The U.S. has not built a massive military compound in Kyiv, the same as in Baghdad. The Green Zone was known as The Emerald City. It housed private security firms that often cared for diplomats and civilian VIPs. And unlike Iraq, where the U.S. committed to on-the-ground defense of its civilian diplomats, Americans from voters to Cabinet secretaries are in agreement they don’t want to deploy troops to Ukraine.

This leaves diplomats with a problem. At least at first, they’re going to commute to Lviv from Poland. Blinken claimed that eventually, the United States would open its Embassy in Kyiv which had been shut down since Feb. 24, the start of the war.

However, senior U.S. officials were not able to confirm whether the Marines will provide security for the facility. The tradition of providing security has been in place since the 1700s. It was officially established after World War II. Some are already deployed to Europe. It would not be surprising to see Marines stationed at the Embassy Gates. However, it could also mean that Americans could wear military uniforms on Ukrainian soil. This could signal a shift in U.S. involvement in combat. It’s one thing to sell weapons, send humanitarian aid, and even share intelligence; it’s another to put weapons in Americans’ hands in the field.

The planned return of diplomats suggests that the U.S. is losing its early apprehension about Russia’s provocations. Volodymyr Ziensky, Ukraine’s President, foiled a secret plan by the Secretaries of Defense and State for a visit to Kyiv. Despite this covert operation being foiled, they made their 11-hour journey from Poland via train with aides and U.S. surveillance technology monitoring each step. Once back across the Polish border, the Americans sounded like their allies were winning—and their foes losing. “We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kind things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said after he returned from Kyiv, an aggressive line against a still-nuclear-capable rival. And the Ukraine Defense Consultative Group—the West’s effort to boost Ukraine—is due to meet Tuesday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany with Austin preparing for more American aid, including another $165 million to restock Soviet-era weaponry.

But, there’s also plenty of reason for Washington’s think tankers to fret about the dangers embedded in any conflict with Moscow. The U.S. foreign policy machine sought to cast Russia’s test of an intercontinental ballistic missile last week as a “nonevent,” hoping to de-escalate. Minutes after Austin and Blinken’s three-hour meeting ended in Kyiv, five Russian train stations were attacked by their forces. And the Biden Administration hours later announced it would nominate a career diplomat to serve as ambassador to Ukraine, backing up Blinken’s assertion that U.S. diplomatic outposts would soon return to some version of functionality after largely ceasing operations two months ago when it became clear the war would be a challenge for Americans’ security. The U.S. still hasn’t sanctioned the mother of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s children for fear of how he might respond.

In short: Washington is still wary of Moscow, but it is starting some high-risk tests—like reopening diplomatic outposts in Ukraine—to see how far Putin can be pushed. Every single provocation and response—from both sides—could send the war cascading to total catastrophe for Ukrainians. According to UN statistics, approximately 8,000 Ukrainians have been killed in the conflict and Russia does not seem to be slowing down.

U.S. diplomats are known for taking on unpredicted and extreme risks. There have been dozens of attacks on diplomatic outposts in all corners of the globe, and the incoming RPGs don’t discriminate between civilian diplomats, Marines, hired contractors, or local bystanders. The 1998 double attack on U.S. embassies at Kenya and Tanzania left 12 Americans dead. America had been shaken before the attacks in Beirut on U.S. diplomatic post in 1984 and 1983. It saw pictures of suicide bombers setting fire to an American footprint in Middle East, evocative for the 1979 fall U.S. embassies in Tehran. Decades later, that gut-punch of a feeling came back when four Americans—including the ambassador—died in the siege of a diplomatic station in Benghazi, Libya in 2012.

But it’s tough for Washington to say it supports Zelensky and his team while keeping diplomats away. The implication is Kyiv’s risks are too great to justify State Department staff. The diplomats are now headed back to Ukraine with Marine friends, most likely heavily armed. It’s one thing for diplomats to negotiate with policy. It’s another for them to do so with their lives.

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