Embassy families including, from left, Sophia, William, and Jacob Tippets board a charter flight that departed, Jan. 28. Photo courtesy of the Kyiv Community Liaison Office.
By Rebecca Metzger, Alexandra Schumann, and Fran Selkovits
In November 2021, media reporting about Russian troop buildup and equipment amassing along its border with Ukraine escalated. Among Embassy Kyiv personnel, the specter of departure kept pace with the buildup. Members of the embassy community debated the implications of the buildup and speculated about how it would play out. Friends and family checked in more often—concerned about the news reports. The embassy increased Regional Security Office (RSO) radio checks and initiated Emergency Action Committees to discuss the security posture. Meanwhile, the Community Liaison Office (CLO) accelerated efforts to ensure current and complete rosters, encouraged family members to register in the Department of State’s emergency notification and accountability system, and planned winter 2022 information sessions to prepare people to transfer to their next assignment.
The following month, the team focused on preparation and planning for what could potentially come. CLO, along with the Foreign Service Institute’s Crisis Management team and the RSO, held a Personal Preparedness Workshop, which provided detailed information about “go bags” and other measures to mitigate a hasty departure. By the end of the month, reality was setting in, and authorized departure discussions began to circulate. U.S. staff were conflicted about what they could or could not share with locally employed staff who were asking for more information. Embassy leadership alleviated that burden by holding town halls to dispel rumors and address the security posture with local and U.S. staff. The message at the time was “be ready, but don’t panic.” Leadership encouraged staff to keep their holiday travel plans but have contingency plans “just in case.”
CLO experienced a push-pull between preparing to leave versus work as usual. On one hand, the office was developing departure information sessions, delving into crisis management materials, and having RSO submit preparedness articles for inclusion in the weekly newsletter. On the other hand, post continued to welcome incoming families to Kyiv up to, and including, the week before the ordered departure orders came through.
With the coronavirus omicron variant expected to peak in February; it was inevitable that post would have COVID-19-positive staff who would not be able to fly to the United States on commercial carriers. Therefore, the embassy arranged for COVID-19-positive U.S. staff and their families to be able to depart, and Kyiv’s Health Unit coordinated mask distribution and COVID-19 testing for everyone departing. The community still looked to CLO to host social events—something easily overlooked when preparing for a crisis despite social connection opportunities remaining vital to the health of the community.
Questions about departure continued to grow after the winter holidays. Conjecture became resignation as staff wondered whether their seemingly inevitable departure would be authorized or ordered. Initially, many family members indicated that they would stay during an authorized departure but, by the time the order came through, most had accepted—begrudgingly—that they would be leaving. Some even expressed relief that the Department had made the decision for them; ordered departure left no room for individual decision making—family members had to go.
The directive came at midnight, Jan. 21: ordered departure for family members and authorized departure for U.S. staff. The next day, it was clear that everything had changed, quite literally, overnight. Emotions ran high and, despite the anticipation, the actual order took the wind out of people. Families were leaving their loved ones behind in unstable conditions with the specter of invasion looming over the country. American staff and family members were not alone in shedding tears as they discussed departure plans with colleagues—especially with the local staff.
Questions about pets became a constant refrain for the CLO. For weeks leading up to departure, Kyiv’s CLO coordinator researched pet transport and export requirements in Ukraine and the European Union, along with U.S. entry requirements. The logistics of moving a pet internationally, with short notice and the current constraints, proved incredibly complicated. CLO and other embassy sections pushed out information about coordinating travel for pets. During the week of departure, the CLO team continued to research and distribute information such as which airlines and airports were best for pet travel and how to communicate with airlines so they would allow animals on board. Every answer seemed to lead to more questions. The CLO coordinator worked with management, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Department of Agriculture, and other entities to answer every question and ensure that all the post’s nearly one hundred pets made it safely out of Ukraine.
For the embassy community, the thought of never returning to homes in Kyiv was hard to fathom. With suitcases, a few irreplaceable items, and important documents in hand, American employees and their family members boarded planes as early as Jan. 23 for safe-haven locations. The last of the staff with departure orders left Kyiv just a few days before the invasion began.
Embassy Kyiv reopened May 18 with a skeleton staff. In the fifth month of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the community remains eager to resume their lives, work, and mission—in Kyiv.
Rebecca Metzger was the coordinator for the Community Liaison Office (CLO), Alexandra Schumann was the CLO assistant, and Fran Selkovits is the newsletter editor at Embassy Kyiv.