WASHINGTON — Bridget Brink, a veteran foreign service officer who has spent most of her career in the shadow of the former Soviet Union, has been nominated by President Joe Biden to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine as the country fends off a Russian invasion that’s entered its third month.
The nomination comes as U.S. officials say American diplomats will soon return to Kyiv, which they evacuated when the war began. Ukrainian forces have since successfully defended the city, and most of the fighting has shifted toward the eastern part of the country.
Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland who has known Brink for years, described her as “not reckless, but fearless,” and expected she’ll be eager to get to Kyiv.
“She’s going to want to be there,” Fried said. “And if you tell her it’s dangerous, she’ll be like, ‘Yeah, so?'”
A hockey fan and mother of two boys, Brink is currently the ambassador to Slovakia. She’s married to another foreign service officer, Nicholas Higgins, who has worked around the world.
Biden’s choice of Brink comes after a lengthy delay. Although the president has moved to fill other diplomatic posts around the world, he waited more than a year after taking office before settling on Brink, then nearly three more months for Monday’s announcement.
Even though former U.S. officials with European expertise have been puzzled by the lag, they were encouraged by Biden’s decision.
“People respect her,” Fried said. “They like her.”
Brink’s first posting was in Belgrade, Serbia, where she served during the war in the Balkans that lasted from 1998 to 1999. She also worked in Tbilisi, Georgia, before the Russian invasion in 2008.
While based in Washington, she worked on European issues at the National Security Council and the State Department.
Brink was nominated by then-President Donald Trump to be ambassador to Slovakia. During her swearing in ceremony in 2019, she shared a piece of “family lore” about her grandfather, who served as a U.S. Army doctor and helped evaluate General Dwight Eisenhower when he was up for a promotion during World War II. As the story goes, Brink said, Eisenhower’s blood pressure “was a bit high,” and her grandfather encouraged him to “lie down for a few minutes and think happy thoughts.”
Eisenhower passed his physical, earned his fourth star and led the invasion of Normandy that helped end the war.
Ukraine and Slovakia share a border of roughly 60 miles, and Slovakia has played an important role in the ongoing conflict. The country provided a S-300 air defense system to Ukraine, and it has accepted refugees fleeing the Russian invasion.
Brink met with people at the border when the invasion began.
“Amidst the heartbreaking scene of Ukrainian women and children crossing the border with Slovakia on foot, is incredible and professional work being done by Slovaks to welcome people escaping hostilities,” she said in a statement at the time.
The relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine has expanded and become more complex since the war began. Biden is in regular contact with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, and billions of dollars in military and economic assistance are flowing from Washington to Kyiv. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin just visited the Ukrainian capital as well.
Fried said there remains a vital role for Brink to play. Since she’ll be based in the country, she can build ties throughout the Ukrainian government. And it doesn’t hurt that Kyiv is seven hours ahead of Washington, Fried said, meaning Brink can help set the pace for the administration.
“She’ll be able to do what any ambassador does with the time advantage,” he said. “When Washington wakes up, you tell them what to do and how to do it.”
William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan, said Brink will have to start planning for postwar reconstruction even as the fighting continues.
Some of that work will involve seeking new policies within Ukraine, which has a long history of entrenched corruption that could make rich nations hesitate to open their pocketbooks.
“You want to have the institutions in place that can make reconstruction more effective,” said Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND corporation. “And that builds confidence among donors.”
The last Senate-approved ambassador to Ukraine was Marie Yovanovitch, who was pushed out by then-President Trump in 2019.
She later testified that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer and unofficial advisor, had urged Ukrainian officials to investigate unproven corruption allegations against Joe Biden, then a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Biden’s son, Hunter, had worked for an energy company in Ukraine named Burisma.
Trump held back $400 million in military assistance for Ukraine as he was pressing for investigations, conduct for which he was later impeached by the House of Representatives. He was not convicted in the Senate.
By Chris Megerian, Associated Press