President Joe Biden's failure to nominate an ambassador to Ukraine more than a year into his presidency is raising concerns among U.S. officials and regional experts as Russia moves closer to launching a full-scale invasion.
"President Biden has undermined the U.S.-Ukraine relationship by failing to even nominate an ambassador to Ukraine—it is a dereliction of duty and contributes to the instability we're seeing unfold today," Rep. Mike Rogers (R., Ala.), ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, told the Washington Free Beacon.
Currently, the United States only has a deputy chief of mission in Kyiv, career foreign service officer Alan Purcell, who was appointed in May 2021. Without an ambassador, the Biden administration has conducted the majority of its diplomacy from Washington, D.C., causing confusion as the stand-off with Russia escalates. Biden said last week a "minor incursion" by Russia would likely be tolerated. This prompted fierce pushback from Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, who responded in a tweet saying, "There are no minor incursions."
Regional experts say diplomacy through social media is not helping the tense situation. A qualified American ambassador would have been able to reassure Zelensky in person and prevent a public disagreement with the White House that many saw as a boon for Russia.
"It is a horrible time for the United States to not have a Senate-confirmed ambassador in Kyiv," said Brad Bowman, a former Senate defense adviser who serves as senior director at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies' Center on Military and Political Power. "A year into the Biden administration, there is zero excuse for the White House's failure to nominate someone."
"Deputy chiefs of mission can be incredibly effective, but there is simply no substitute for an ambassador," Bowman said, adding that "the Senate can be slow in confirming nominees, but you can't blame the Senate if you haven't even nominated someone. This borders on diplomatic malpractice by the Biden administration."
Russia began stationing more than 100,000 troops and military equipment along Ukraine's border earlier this month, amplifying fears that it will make good on its long-held desire to invade the country. Ukraine has positioned itself as a top Western ally and a bulwark against Russian aggression in Eastern Europe.
Senate Democrats obstructed former president Donald Trump's ambassadorial nominee to Ukraine, Keith Dayton, for the entire last year of his presidency. Dayton, a retired three-star general with an intelligence and security background, is still seen by many in Congress as a viable ambassador to Ukraine. Sen. Rob Portman (R., Ohio) is said to have pushed for Dayton to be renominated earlier this year, but the administration did not move on it, according to those familiar with the matter.
Republican officials said the Biden administration could nominate a partisan State Department official to fill the post. They fear such a nominee would do little to combat Russian aggression.
"What we need is somebody like [Dayton] who has bipartisan credentials and a security assistance background," one senior congressional source who works on defense issues told the Free Beacon. "The situation will not be helped without true credentials of dealing with the Russians. Your run of the mill career [as a foreign service officer] isn't going to cut it. This post calls for someone of stature."
An ambassador would also be tasked with leading the Biden administration's evacuation of the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. The State Department ordered the families of U.S. personnel stationed there to evacuate late last week as Russia moved troops into position for an invasion. "Some U.S. government employees" have also been ordered to evacuate, according to a senior State Department official who briefed reporters on Sunday evening about the situation.
The State Department elevated its travel advisory for Ukraine to a level-four order of "do not travel" due to the "increased threat of Russian military action."
"We are taking this action now because of Russia's aggressive actions toward Ukraine," the State Department official said. "It is Russia that has amassed upwards of 100,000 troops on Ukraine's borders. It is Russia that is conducting disinformation operations and fomenting unrest."
The United States is also providing Ukraine with "new lethal defensive security assistance," according to the State Department. This includes ammunition for frontline troops totaling $200 million. The United States has allocated another $650 million for Ukraine security assistance in the past year.
"As President Biden told President Putin, should Russia further invade Ukraine, the consequences will be severe, and the United States will provide additional defensive material to Ukraine above and beyond that already provided," the State Department official said.
Asked on Monday if the White House had any intention of nominating an ambassador to Ukraine, Press Secretary Jen Psaki had no answer.
The State Department referred a request for comment to the White House. The White House National Security Council did not respond to a request for comment.