Reappointment of U.S. ambassador to Ukraine signals Russia’s rough road

The United States Embassy to Ukraine stands closed on April 25, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine.
The anticipated reopening of the U.S. embassy in Kyiv is further proof of Ukraine’s strength, says Northeastern Professor Mai’a Cross. Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

This report is part of ongoing coverage of the Russia-Ukraine war. Visit our dedicated page for more on this topic.

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine enters its third month, the United States is reopening its embassy in Kyiv. It’s a meaningful gesture that affirms Ukraine’s surprising defiance, says Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern.

Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern.
Mai’a Cross, the Edward W. Brooke Professor of Political Science and International Affairs at Northeastern. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“It shows that the Russian military has retrenched enough that the security concerns are not as dire as when [Western] diplomats were removed,” Cross says. “It really is showing a commitment to diplomacy that supports Ukraine.”

Russia is focusing its attacks in the east, where Mariupol remains under siege as President Vladimir Putin seeks to control the Donbas region. Cross says Putin is faced with an increasing sense of urgency as Europe considers plans—including one by the International Energy Agency—that would enable painful sanctions on Russian oil and gas.

Cross spoke with News@Northeastern about U.S. diplomacy, the Russian military comeuppance, and the potential for deeper sanctions. Her comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.

President Biden has nominated Bridget Brink as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. How will an ambassador help?

There has not been a U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine since 2019, when President Donald Trump prompted a scandal by pressuring Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate Joe Biden.

In general, the U.S. diplomatic corps suffered immensely under Trump. He basically gutted it and the State Department, and there were so many embassies around the world that did not have a full staff of diplomats. 

Biden is very committed to diplomacy and the role of the State Department. The announcement of a career ambassador who is an expert in this region is very welcome. Professional diplomats have a deep and broad network of ties to their counterparts in other countries, and that’s what this new appointee would bring to the table.

Could this move help preclude the U.S. from being dragged into the war?

This is something that supports Ukraine more than it deals with Russia, because we have not been able to trust any diplomatic moves or statements that Putin or his government have made since Day One. It doesn’t have much of an effect on whether the U.S. might ultimately get dragged into this war on a larger scale or whether NATO countries might find themselves pulled in because Putin crosses the line. 

But the announcement of the new ambassador is in line with the possibility that Russia could lose the war. 

The Biden administration has announced that their goal is to permanently weaken Russia. This is a strategy that’s happening alongside the diplomacy, which puts in place long-term infrastructure for supporting Ukraine and signaling that the U.S. and the West absolutely stand with Ukraine, no matter what Russia does on the battlefield.

Is the window closing for Russia?

The longer this goes on, the harder it becomes for Russia to sustain the war because it’s cut off economically and it’s cut off from supplies. The Russian military has sustained losses of tens of thousands of soldiers dead or injured. It’s almost inevitable that Russia gets weaker and weaker the longer the war drags on. 

At the same time, it is still a nuclear power. So the threat is still very high. And if anything, precisely because the military has amassed all these failures, the chances that Putin might feel the need to resort to chemical weapons, tactical nuclear weapons, or more destructive civilian targeting on the ground, is higher out of desperation. 

There is more reason for hope because the military campaign has been such an unexpected failure—but also because the Ukrainians have been so unexpectedly strong and the West has been so willing to come together and support Ukraine militarily and economically. But it is a paradox in which Russia is weakening economically and militarily every single day, but at the same time it is still a power to be reckoned with when it comes to Putin’s willingness to cross lines and defy global norms.

What are the chances of the ultimate step: sanctions on Russian oil and gas?

The European Commission is drawing up a plan now that hasn’t been released on how Europe can cut off [Russian] oil but protect its own economy to the greatest extent possible. It’s hardest for Germany to do this. At the moment, European Commission officials are saying the EU countries are not on the same page when it comes to an oil embargo. It doesn’t mean that they won’t get to be on the same page. Depending on what moves Russia makes on the battlefield, the countries in Europe could very quickly align in favor of an oil embargo. 

It is alarming to consider that since the start of the war, the EU has transferred over $20 billion to Russia in the form of energy payments. 

It is the job of the International Energy Agency to deal with oil crises like this, and it has put forward a 10-step plan. If the West decided to create some kind of ban on Russian oil, you would be looking at the potential of a global recession. This is why European countries have not wanted to embrace an oil and gas embargo. It affects citizens in their daily lives and it affects key areas of industry.

Would the public in Europe support oil sanctions despite the personal cost?

I think it really depends on what Putin does in Ukraine to prompt this kind of extreme decision because it is the final major step that Europeans can take to sanction Russia. If we start to see even more egregious humanitarian atrocities, if we start to see clear use of chemical weapons, then these are things that could prompt the citizens to be on board with it.

What is the International Energy Agency plan?

Basically, it’s about finding alternative sources. For example, they encourage a thermostat adjustment by one degree Celsius. This could also be a plan for all countries of the world in response to climate change. 

I wouldn’t be surprised if the European Commission plan built off this in some way, but maybe with more of a focus on the needs of European consumers. There is always the risk that when you take these dramatic steps that involve sacrifice for regular European citizens, you may inadvertently stoke the far right. 

The issue at stake is Ukraine looking to the West, hoping to join the EU. It would be very disappointing, in the process of standing up for these values, if somehow, the war itself destabilizes Europe. That would be one avenue to a win for Putin in terms of his real goal, which is to stop the spread of democracy into Eastern Europe and especially into Russia.

How would Putin respond to sanctions on oil and gas?

You could say, ‘Oh, he’ll just sell it to India and China.’ But Western powers have been clear about not allowing other countries to circumvent the sanctions. While India and China can buy the oil now, that’s because there’s no embargo. If there were a Western embargo, China would have a hard time buying the oil because they would be risking secondary sanctions on themselves.

Two months ago, as Russia was launching the invasion, would you have imagined that its military would fail so consistently, that Ukraine would defend itself so effectively, and that the West would be unified in its support of Ukraine? Initial forecasts by other analysts of a quick Russian victory that destabilizes the West have not materialized.

Of the three scenarios I painted in the beginning of the war, we’re very clearly headed to the best possible outcome of what is ultimately still a tragedy for the Ukrainian people.

These have to be embarrassing losses for the Russian military—going all the way up to Kyiv and then having to turn around and go back to the east is a sign of weakness. The avoidance of tactical nuclear weapons is a positive sign. That there hasn’t been some kind of accidental escalation into NATO territory is absolutely a positive sign. And then you look at what Europeans and Americans have been able to do in reducing the health of the Russian economy.

You have these diplomatic visits from Western leaders into Ukraine. Zelenskyy is still there giving speeches. The world is still paying attention, though not as much as before. U.S. generals were forecasting that Kyiv would fall in four days, and now instead an American ambassador is going to hopefully be approved to resume embassy functions in Kyiv. 

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