US envoy offers limited support to local Ukrainian embassy staff as Russia attacks

The Biden administration’s top European envoy urged eligible local staff who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to apply as soon as possible for special visas that would allow them to settle permanently in the United States.

A copy of the letter, written by Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried and obtained by Foreign Police, highlights the internal efforts of the US government to help the hundreds of Ukrainians who were on staff at the US Embassy in Kyiv before Russia invaded Ukraine. The letter also reveals how senior US officials believe the conflict could drag on for months or even longer, as Donfried urged them to apply for US visas and warned of constraints on support that the State Department could provide them in the long term. .

“If the crisis persists, we may have to make difficult decisions about our operations and your employment status, but we are not there yet,” Donfried wrote to staff at the local Ukrainian embassy. “What we can guarantee is that we will keep you informed every step of the way to give you plenty of time to make decisions about what is best for your personal situation.”

The Biden administration’s top European envoy urged eligible local staff who worked for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine to apply as soon as possible for special visas that would allow them to settle permanently in the United States.

A copy of the letter, written by Assistant Secretary of State Karen Donfried and obtained by Foreign Police, highlights the internal efforts of the US government to help the hundreds of Ukrainians who were on staff at the US Embassy in Kyiv before Russia invaded Ukraine. The letter also reveals how senior US officials believe the conflict could drag on for months or even longer, as Donfried urged them to apply for US visas and warned of constraints on support that the State Department could provide them in the long term. .

“If the crisis persists, we may have to make difficult decisions about our operations and your employment status, but we are not there yet,” Donfried wrote to staff at the local Ukrainian embassy. “What we can guarantee is that we will keep you informed every step of the way to give you plenty of time to make decisions about what is best for your personal situation.”

Donfried urged locally employed embassy staff who are eligible for U.S. special immigrant visas to begin their applications immediately. “I strongly encourage those of you who are eligible, nearly half of all Mission Ukraine [local] staff, to take advantage of the program and apply now,” she wrote.

The Special Immigrant Visa Program (SIV) is a special program that grants permanent residence in the United States to foreign citizens who have assisted the United States government. When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan in 2021, the SIV program became one of the main channels for tens of thousands of Afghans who helped the American war effort there to try to flee then that the government was collapsing and the Taliban were taking over the country. But the program was bogged down in red tape and bureaucratic backlogs, leaving thousands of Afghans uncertain or unable to leave the country despite being targeted for Taliban reprisals.

Under US immigration law, only Ukrainians who have worked for the US government for at least 15 years are eligible to apply for an SIV. Some 600 Ukrainian citizens worked at the US Embassy in Kyiv before US diplomats were evacuated to Lviv shortly before the Russian invasion last month. Donfried indicated in his letter that nearly half – about 300 – of those employees would be eligible for SIVs, leaving an uncertain fate for the other half of the employees. Changing the SIV law would require action by Congress, not the State Department.

As the Russian invasion unfolded, Ukrainian employees at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv pleaded with the State Department to help them evacuate combat zones and secure visas for them and their families in the States. -United. These local employees sent letters to the State Department saying they felt abandoned by Washington and accusing the State Department of reneging on its promises to provide them with long-term financial assistance.

“While we realize that some questions may not have specific answers at this time, for us the lack of consistency and ability to secure at least part of our lives is truly frightening,” the local employee leaders wrote. in a letter. at the State Department earlier this month obtained by Foreign Police.

Donfried’s letter was intended to address their concerns and allay their fears, but it also pointed to the limits of support the State Department could provide to local employees, some of whom have worked for the US government for decades, without any certainty about whether or when the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv could safely reopen.

“I can assure you that senior leaders in Washington remain committed to supporting Ukraine and its people in defending your sovereignty and independence. The best way to do this may change over time as the conflict itself develops. same changes,” she wrote. “This makes it very difficult to predict where and how our work together – the work we have all done from our embassy and other facilities in Kyiv – will continue.”

She added that the State Department intends to continue paying salaries “as long as possible.”

She also referred them to a European Union program, called the Temporary Protection Directive (TPD), allowing Ukrainians to apply for temporary residence and work permits elsewhere in Europe, saying the EU could offer more immediate benefits to Ukrainian embassy staff than the United States. government could, although many of them have worked for the US government for decades.

“Ukrainians are eligible for EU-wide work permits, which provides a back-up plan for continued support should the unfortunate situation arise where you are no longer employed by the US government,” Donfried wrote. “We can’t predict what will happen or when, but this EU TPD registration offers immediate benefits as well as long-term benefits if you can’t get home as quickly as we all want.”

Several US diplomats familiar with the matter said that some of the 600 Ukrainians who worked at the US embassy chose to stay in the country, either to help the territorial defense forces in the fight against Russian troops or to resettle in the relative safety of western Ukraine. . Others, however, including the families of some employees, remain trapped in Kyiv or other cities, suffering shelling and shelling from Russian forces.

US diplomats said they feared Ukrainians who worked for the US Embassy would face retaliation from Russian forces if the invasion was successful. They also drew parallels with Afghanistan, where they say hundreds of Afghans who worked for the US Embassy or State Department there were effectively abandoned when the US withdrew its forces and evacuated tens of thousands more Afghans. These diplomats questioned why the U.S. government had no plan in place to help protect or provide assistance to their longtime Ukrainian colleagues, given the months of advance warning Washington had given about the a possible Russian invasion.

The war in Ukraine has entered its fourth week as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s hopes for a quick victory to topple Ukraine’s pro-Western government have foundered amid military mistakes and surprisingly fierce Ukrainian resistance. The Russian invasion has already killed more than 900 civilians and wounded nearly 1,500 others, the The United Nations estimates, although he added that the actual toll was likely “significantly higher”. (Officials in Mariupol, in southeastern Ukraine, have already cited more than 2,000 civilian deaths in that town alone.) As the conflict continues, the UN refugee agency estimates that up to ‘at 4 million people will be forced to flee the country.

Throughout the country, Russian air and artillery strikes have destroyed dozens of hospitals and schoolswhile the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry accused Russian forces of forcibly remove more than 2,000 children from the breakaway eastern Ukrainian regions of Donetsk and Luhansk on Tuesday. In besieged Ukrainian cities like Mariupol, hundreds of thousands of civilians were trapped with dwindling food supplies, no heat and no water. Faced with famine, some residents would have resorted to potable water from radiators or melted snow; others were forced to eat stray dogs out of desperation.

On Monday, US President Joe Biden warned that the Kremlin could resort to using Chemical Weapons against Ukraine, in an escalation that could further escalate the conflict.

“Putin’s back is against the wall,” Biden said. “He has used chemical weapons in the past, and we have to be careful what happens next.”