‘She’s seen the war’: What awaits Biden’s Ukraine ambassador pick

It helps that President Joe Biden’s pick – career US Foreign Service officer Bridget Brink – has the unflinching support of her predecessors.

“Bridget has a lot of management experience, a lot of leadership experience,” Marie Yovanovitch, Washington’s last ambassador to Ukraine, told POLITICO. “She knows how to put together teams and, you know, get to success. And I think that’s what she’s going to do. She’s very strong. ”

“She’s going to be great for the job,” William Taylor, a former US ambassador to Ukraine, said in a phone interview. The high-stakes situation in which she’ll find herself in Ukraine will only motivate her to step up her game, he said. “In a war zone, it just heightens the intensity, it heightens the importance, it heightens the focus,” he said.

Biden’s announcement that he intends to nominate Brink to lead the US diplomatic mission in Ukraine followed a secretive Sunday visit by State Secretary Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to Kyiv, where they met President Volodymyr Zelenskyy inside a secure, windowless room at his fortified office. Blinken told reporters after crossing safely back into Poland that he promised Zelenskyy that American diplomats would return to Ukraine this week and the new ambassador will arrive soon.

“They’ll then start the process of looking at how we actually reopen the embassy itself in Kyiv. I think that will take place over a couple of weeks would be my expectation, ”Blinken said, suggesting US diplomats may only go as far as western Ukraine for now. “We’re doing it deliberately, we’re doing it carefully, we’re doing it with the security of our personnel foremost in mind, but we’re doing it.”

If confirmed by the Senate, Brink would be the first American ambassador in Kyiv since Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled by former President Donald Trump in 2019, a move that was heavily criticized during his first impeachment trial. Brink currently serves as US ambassador to Slovakia, a post to which she was unanimously confirmed in 2019.

Interviews with both Democratic and Republican senators on Monday suggest a speedy confirmation this time around, too. Republicans, in particular, said they were eager to see a Senate-confirmed ambassador in place as they urge Biden to reestablish the US diplomatic presence in Kyiv and described Brink as a qualified and consensus pick for the job.

“This is a moment that we need to move decisively and quickly with strong bipartisan support,” Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.), Who was in Ukraine earlier this month and recently met with Brink in Slovakia, said in an interview Monday. “She has the votes to get confirmed at this point.”

“We’ve got to get leadership over there,” Sen. Thom Tillis (RN.C.), who was in the region last week, told POLITICO. “These confirmed positions are very, very important. Can’t overstate the value when you’re out abroad. ”

Steven Pifer, who served as US ambassador to Ukraine from 1998 to 2000, echoed the widespread vote of confidence. “She’s bright. She is well informed. She’s also a person who you might identify as a person on the fast track, ”he said, recalling her speedy rise through the ranks at the State Department.

“Having the American flag back [in Kyiv] it would be a great political message to Ukrainians, ”he said. Echoing Yovanovitch, he called Brink a “good manager.”

“That’ll be important,” he added, “because it’ll not be easy getting things up and running again.”

It’s still unclear when the US will send diplomats back to Kyiv. But wherever Brink is based in Ukraine, be it the capital or western Lviv, she will be coming into the role “in a totally different situation” than any of her predecessors, Yovanovitch said.

Yovanovitch served as ambassador in wartime Ukraine, but during her tenure Russia’s military operation was lower in intensity, limited in scale and confined to the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions. After all-out fighting from spring 2014 through winter 2015, the war turned to one of attrition, with troops mostly lobbing small shells at each other from a maze of World War I-style bunkers and trenches.

Brink will be Washington’s top diplomat in Ukraine while the country is under heavy attack by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s forces. The Kremlin may have pulled back troops from around Kyiv, but it continues to pound cities across Ukraine with powerful missiles and bombs, while its ground forces focus on a large swath of territory in the east and south. Underscoring the danger overnight on Sunday and Monday, Russian missiles struck five railway lines – critical links for delivering humanitarian aid and military supplies – including one in Lviv just hours before Biden announced Brink’s nomination.

A Russian speaker whose career has mostly been focused on Europe and Eurasia, Brink is a known entity in Ukraine circles. She served for three years as deputy assistant secretary for the State Department’s Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, where she worked closely with Yovanovitch while the latter was in Kyiv.

“She and I partnered up and she was my main contact in Washington when I first arrived in Ukraine,” Yovanovitch said. “She was my day-to-day partner, calling back and forth and emailing back and forth.” In March 2017, Brink got a firsthand look at the devastation wrought by Russia-backed forces in eastern Ukraine, meeting with victims in the cities of Kramatorsk and Slovyansk.

“She’s been to the Donbas,” Yovanovitch said. “She’s seen the war.”

Brink’s biggest task is going to be a running point for the Biden administration’s effort to help Ukraine defeat Russia. The unprovoked war has killed thousands of civilians, displaced some 5 million more and leveled entire cities in just 61 days. Taylor said few people are as prepared as Brink to take on such a demanding role at a critical moment. “She’s well experienced,” he said. “She knows the region, she knows the issues.”

The day after Putin launched his full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Brink visited Slovakia’s border, where she said in a statement she witnessed “the heartbreaking scene of Ukrainian women and children” fleeing the Russian attack.

One thing Brink is unlikely to have to deal much with, at least in the short term, is playing referee between Zelenskyy’s administration and ruling party and the competing political factions and unruly former presidents who frequently bicker. Russia’s war has to an unprecedented extent quashed long-standing beefs between rivals and smoothed over the messy and complicated world of Ukrainian politics, as the country unites to defeat a common foe.

“While the war goes on – until the Ukrainians win – my bet is this unity will prevail. The heads of the so-called opposition are now supporting the president, ”Taylor said. But sometime down the line, Brink will eventually need to step into the messy and murky world of Ukrainian politics.

“Ukraine’s a real democracy. When they win and when they’re back into the reconstruction and they’re back into the reform efforts and they’re back into the application to join the EU and all those political questions, the politics will reemerge. Because there is a real democracy, there is a real debate, ”Taylor said.

A foreign official who has worked with Brink and spoke to POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic issues described her as “committed and diligent” and “a what-are-we-doing-today-to-save-the-world kind of person. ”

“She knows how the Washington machine works and because she’s so close to [Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria] Nuland, she has very good connections. She knows the people in the White House well and gets things done, ”the official said.

If Brink has a shortcoming, the official said, it is that “she has this view, there are good guys and bad guys. Things are not black and white in Ukraine. That might be her disadvantage. ”

How soon Brink is able to assume the new ambassadorship will depend largely on how quickly the Senate can confirm her. On Capitol Hill, senators on both sides of the aisle expressed support for getting her to Ukraine quickly.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said the Senate would “prioritize” Brink’s nomination and “move her as quickly as possible.” But it requires consent from all 100 senators to swiftly confirm a nominee; otherwise, it could take up to a week of floor time to clear procedural hurdles.

“I don’t want to see [senators] somehow using this nomination as leverage, ”said Daines. “Ambassador Brink has been clear: she wants to see the diplomatic mission restored to Ukraine.”

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Bob Menendez (DN.J.) said he’d seek to hold a hearing on her nomination immediately once Biden formally submits her to the Senate, and Democrats predicted a quick confirmation.

“If you have ‘Ukraine’ in the title of anything these days, you have a chance at expedited approval in the United States Senate,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) Quipped. “This is a career public servant who has no political red flags. … I’d be surprised if we can’t get 100 people to do the right thing here. ”

One wild card could be Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Who tried to subpoena Brink in 2020 as part of his investigation into the president’s son Hunter and potential conflicts of interest. Brink eventually sat down for a voluntary interview with Johnson’s investigators.

Johnson told POLITICO on Monday that he has not yet decided: “I’d have to take a look at what she did in our investigation. It’s been a couple years. ”

Asked what she would tell Brink about the role she’s getting ready to step into, Yovanovitch said she “wouldn’t presume to give her advice.”

“I think she knows exactly what to do.”

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