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U.S. reopens embassy in Kyiv for first time since invasion began

                                Employees of US embassy in Ukraine raise the US national flag at the US embassy, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine.


    Employees of US embassy in Ukraine raise the US national flag at the US embassy, as Russia’s attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine.

WASHINGTON >> The United States reopened its embassy in Kyiv on Wednesday, restoring formal diplomatic operations in Ukraine’s capital for the first time since Russia invaded the country in February.

U.S. officials had been eager to reopen the embassy as a symbolic show of support for Ukraine, to reestablish in-person communication with senior officials in Kyiv and to join a growing roster of nations, including Britain and Israel, that have sent diplomats back to the city in recent weeks.

But the move brings heightened risk to Americans in a country where Russian missiles can strike without warning, even far from the front lines of battle now located hundreds of miles east of the capital.

In a triumphal statement announcing the move, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the Ukrainian people “have defended their homeland in the face of Russia’s unconscionable invasion, and, as a result, the Stars and Stripes are flying over the embassy once again.”

But a State Department spokesperson said embassy operations would be “limited” for the time being, with only a “small contingent” of the more than 100 American employees returning for now. U.S. officials would not discuss details of their security arrangements.

All U.S. diplomats departed Ukraine in mid-February, shortly before the Russian attack, leaving behind a shuttered embassy on Kyiv’s west side. Many of them relocated to Poland, and in recent weeks a handful began making day trips into Ukraine before traveling back across the Polish border each night.

Former diplomats welcomed the news, saying that a nonmilitary U.S. presence in the country — “suits on the ground,” as some have called it — is essential to coordinating Washington’s efforts to support Kyiv, particularly now that the United States is poised to send $40 billion in fresh aid to Ukraine.

“The diplomats and other elements of the embassy were very eager to get back to Kyiv,” said William B. Taylor, who was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009 and acting ambassador from June 2019 to February 2020.

With Russian forces repelled from around Kyiv, the capital has returned to a state of relative security. After paying a clandestine visit in late April, Blinken reported that “the battle for Kyiv was won, and there is what looks from the surface, at least, to be normal life” in the city.

But all of Ukraine remains in danger from potential Russian attacks, including airstrikes that have reached as far as the western border with Poland.

U.S. embassies in war zones and other dangerous places are typically guarded by contingents of U.S. Marines. But President Joe Biden has repeatedly vowed not to send U.S. troops into Ukraine. The State Department operates its own internal security service for protecting diplomats.

In his statement, Blinken said only that the department had “put forward additional measures” to increase safety and “enhanced our security measures and protocols.”

The safety of U.S. diplomats abroad has been a particularly charged topic since the 2012 attack on a U.S. compound in Benghazi, Libya, that killed four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador, Chris Stevens. Many Republicans blamed Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state at the time, despite multiple reviews that did not find her at fault.

In a speech in the fall, Blinken argued that the United States could not afford to take a zero-risk approach to diplomacy if it hoped to be effective in dangerous places. “A world of zero risk is not a world in which American diplomacy can deliver,” he said.

After several nations reopened their diplomatic outposts in Kyiv — Israel’s embassy reopened Tuesday — the Biden administration faced increasing pressure to keep up.

“We sure don’t want to be last to the party,” Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said at a hearing this month.

For now, U.S. diplomats in Ukraine report to the acting ambassador, Kristina Kvien.

Biden has nominated Bridget Brink, a career diplomat who is the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, to fill the vacant post of ambassador to Ukraine. The Senate held a confirmation hearing for Brink this month.

Asked during her hearing about the physical condition of the embassy since the Russian invasion, Brink said she had seen a photograph of the building showing some damage that appeared “cosmetic” but was unsure of its extent.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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