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The acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine is preparing for 2 big transitions

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine is preparing for two big transitions. First, the embassy is about to return to Kyiv. They evacuated to Poland early in the war. And the other big change? President Biden has nominated a veteran diplomat to fill the post that's been vacant for three years. In the meantime, the acting U.S. ambassador is shuttling back and forth across the Ukraine-Poland border. And she joins us now from the Polish city of Rzeszow. Kristina Kvien, it is good to talk to you again.

KRISTINA KVIEN: Hello, Ari. It's great to join you today.

SHAPIRO: You've been a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine for more than two years. And this week you returned for the first time since Russia started its assault in late February. What was it like for you to set foot back in the country?

KVIEN: It was amazing to be back. I had been wanting to go back since we left, and I was thrilled that my security folks told me that the situation was such that it was safe to go back. We did a day trip to Lviv. I met with a wide variety of folks, including the mayor, the governor and also some of the international organizations and NGO implementers of the humanitarian assistance that has been flowing in. So it was a terrific trip, and I look forward to taking more of them soon.

SHAPIRO: Russia was driven back from Kyiv about a month ago, in early April. Why return to the embassy now? And when I say now, I'm actually curious when exactly you are planning to return to the embassy because that's been a little unclear.

KVIEN: Well, we hope to return in the next few weeks. We're doing our final assessments that would allow us to determine that the security situation is permissive to go back. Even though the Russians did pull back from Kyiv, of course, it continues to be hit by missiles, and I would say that the situation is still not 100% safe. So we have been doing careful reviews of the situation to make sure that when we do go back, that we can be as safe as possible.

SHAPIRO: Can you give us an example of something you're looking forward to being able to do from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv that you haven't been able to do remotely from Poland?

KVIEN: I think the most important thing is to be able to meet with Ukrainian leaders face-to-face. Of course, we've continued to talk on the phone, on video conferencing, but it's not the same as sitting down with someone face-to-face and being able to have an in-person conversation. So I think that's going to be the most valuable thing for me is to be able to sit down with my contacts, most of whom I've known a long time, so they're - I consider many of them friends not just contacts - and really have a good conversation and get a sense of where things are.

SHAPIRO: The last time we spoke, you talked about the many people in Ukraine who you're close to. Are they all safe, as far as you know?

KVIEN: Well, unfortunately, very sadly, we lost one of my bodyguards.

SHAPIRO: Oh.

KVIEN: He was fighting in the east, in the military, and he was killed by the Russians.

SHAPIRO: My goodness.

KVIEN: So it's incredibly sad and tragic for the embassy and also obviously for his family. But he was a hero. I mean, he was fighting in the east for his country when he was killed. And so I would say that the death has touched us, even in the embassy. And we don't take for granted - we have many other embassy employees who are fighting. And so we do not take any of that for granted, and we think of them every day and send them our best wishes.

SHAPIRO: Wow. Could you share his name with us?

KVIEN: His name was Volodya (ph). We don't use last names just for the privacy of the family, but his name was Volodya.

SHAPIRO: Now, President Biden has nominated Bridget Brink to be ambassador and take over for you. She still has to be confirmed by the Senate. But what is your first piece of advice for her going to be after you've filled this job in an acting capacity during such an eventful time of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship?

KVIEN: Rest up and get lots of sleep (laughter).

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) While you still can?

KVIEN: It's a very busy job, especially these days. Listen. I've known Bridget for over 15 years. She and I worked together in the past. She's fantastic. She's high energy. She's smart. She knows Ukraine, and she knows the whole region. And she'll be a terrific ambassador when confirmed by the Senate. So honestly, I don't have to give her a lot of advice 'cause I think she knows the reason - region so well already that she can just step right in and be fully effective on the first day.

SHAPIRO: Are you planning to stay at the embassy in Ukraine after she's confirmed?

KVIEN: Yeah. Actually, you know, it's a three-year assignment, and my three-year assignment is up this summer. So I will probably stay just long enough to help her transition and then move on.

SHAPIRO: Now, the last time you and I spoke, I met you in the Polish hotel that's been your base of operations. And you noted that although you have a lot of diplomatic experience, you had not served in a war zone before.

KVIEN: It's definitely a different kettle of fish. I mean, there are things you need to learn and challenges you need to take on that are different than in a country that is at peace. I've learned a lot of military terminology that I didn't know before. I've learned a lot about weapons that I didn't know before. And obviously, I would say that all of us on my team here are imbued with the feeling that what we're doing is incredibly important for the health and safety and survival of people. And that really motivates us.

So whether it's helping to provide more weapons so that the Ukrainians can defend themselves or provide humanitarian support either to those that are inside Ukraine but internally displaced or in need of food, water and basics, or people who have had to leave Ukraine and helping them outside of the country - all of those things, everything we do every day is really focused on helping people and supporting them in a very physical way that I think we don't normally do in a normal environment. So it really motivates us and is one of the reasons that we keep going, you know, more than 12 hours a day, I would say, for most of us; because we feel that our work is really helping people on the ground.

SHAPIRO: When you look at the state of the war at this point, do you see a way for Russia to win?

KVIEN: You know, already, frankly, Russia has failed. Russia came into the war thinking that they could quickly overrun Ukraine, that they could perhaps topple the government - they certainly tried to do that at the beginning - that they could take Kyiv and other strategic cities. And for the most part, they failed. They've been driven back away from Kyiv. President Zelenskyy and his government are still in place, working hard and fully functional. And now Russia has had to rethink what their objectives are, and they are definitely significantly smaller than they set out to be. So do I think Russia can win? I think Russia's already lost, certainly if you judge it by what their initial objectives were.

That doesn't mean, though, that Ukraine doesn't have a hard fight ahead of it and that Russia will stop trying sometime soon. So that's why we continue to send in weapons and other material and supplies to Ukraine - to help them continue to fight the fight against Russia and hopefully drive them out of the country completely. That's certainly, I know, what Ukraine's objective is, and we want to help them in meeting that objective.

SHAPIRO: Kristina Kvien is the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Thank you for speaking with us once again.

KVIEN: Thank you, Ari. It was good to see you again.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHOENIX'S "DEFINITIVE BREAKS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.