KYIV, Ukraine — The US Embassy in Ukraine has gone through a lot recently.
Former President Donald Trump recalled the ambassador in 2019, an episode that became a big part of his first impeachment. This past February, the embassy was abruptly shut down shortly before Russia invaded.
It reopened last month, and the newly arrived ambassador, Bridget Brink, is the first permanent, Senate-confirmed ambassador in three years. She’s overseeing a massive US assistance program to Ukraine with a staff that for now is much smaller than what it was before the war.
“I wish I had 48 hours in a day,” Brink told NPR in an interview at the huge embassy compound.
She begins most days with meetings with Ukrainian government officials. That often involves a trip through Kyiv, where everyday life can seem mostly normal, until she reaches the heavily fortified government buildings.
“The first time I went to see the president (Volodymyr Zelenskyy), or whenever I go to see a minister, the offices are all barricaded. They’re all dark. You have to walk along dark hallways with no light and go up dark elevators because for reasons of security, they don’t keep the lights on,” she said.
“Very heavily armed people are everywhere. Barricades and roadblocks are everywhere,” she added. “Kyiv remains in a wartime posture.”
Brink, who previously served as ambassador to Slovakia, arrived in Ukraine less than three weeks ago. She’s already visited the Kyiv suburbs of Bucha, Irpin and Borodyanka, where Russian forces were accused of widespread abuses as they advanced to within 10 miles of the capital in the early days of the war.
Brink said the US is funding Ukrainian efforts to investigate war crimes.
“This is a really important priority, and it’s why I wanted to personally go to some of these sites early on,” she said.
Ukraine says it has documented more than 15,000 potential Russian war crimes. Three Russian soldiers have already been tried and convicted.
However, Ukraine faces a host of challenges, which include capturing Russian troops suspected of abuses and linking them to specific crimes. Ukraine says it wants to push ahead despite the ongoing war. If the country waits until the fighting is over, evidence and witnesses could be much harder to find.
Duel realities in a country at war
The ambassador said living in Kyiv often means dealing with dual realities — going about ordinary daily business that’s punctuated by abrupt reminders of the ongoing war.
“On the one hand, it seems a little bit normal in that some shops and restaurants are starting to open and you can get some goods here,” she said. “But on the other hand, throughout the day there are air raid sirens and it’s against a threat that’s very hard to guard against.”
At the start of the war, Russia was attacking on three fronts — north, east and south. Now the fighting largely concentrated on the east. But it still imposes hardships on Ukrainians throughout the country.
“I just look at the resilience of the Ukrainian people from the president to the 10-year old girl that I met in Irpin, who had to hide for two and a half months in a dark, cold, dirty basement with missiles flying and hitting all around her,” Brink said. “Yet she and her mom said they’re going to stay and they’re going to fight to the very end.”
The war is nearly four months old and there’s no end in sight. The momentum has swung back and forth, and Russia now appears to have the upper hand in the current fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine.
“My judgment is that this is going to be a long grinding, tough war,” Brink said. “The Ukrainians are fighting inch by inch, yard by yard, kilometer by kilometer. It’s incredibly intense, difficult fighting with lots of losses.”