An inside look at the State Department during a war in Europe

The ongoing aggression by Vladimir Putin and his Russian armed forces has provoked a nearly all-of-government response from the United States, no less than nati...

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The ongoing aggression by Vladimir Putin and his Russian armed forces has provoked a nearly all-of-government response from the United States, no less than nations geographically closer to Ukraine. That includes the State Department. For a view from the inside, the Federal Drive with Tom Temin turned to the president of the American Foreign Service Association, Eric Rubin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ambassador Rubin, good to have you back.

Eric Rubin: Thank you very much, Tom, good to be here.

Tom Temin: And I want to start with your own background, because you served the State Department earlier in your career in Moscow and also in Ukraine. So you’re one of their Eastern European go to people.

Eric Rubin: I am. I’ve been working actually on relations with the Soviet Union in the former Soviet Union for almost 40 years.

Tom Temin: What’s your feeling? What’s your sense of all this? What are you going through personally watching this drama unfold?

Eric Rubin: Well, for me, and for my colleagues who’ve been working on this set of issues since the end of the Cold War, since the end of the Soviet Union, it’s a very, very emotionally painful time, partly because we all have friends and colleagues, people we work with, their families whom we know and what people in Ukraine are going through now is like nothing except maybe what happened in Bosnia, to the people of Sarajevo. But it’s the only other example I can think of in Europe since World War II. And this is on a much bigger scale on a much bigger country. And it’s also for those of us who’ve been working to have a better relationship with Russia, and in the hope that Russia would be democratic and European and free. It’s also very painful time.

Tom Temin: I imagine it must seem like there’s a chasm between Putin, his military, and the oligarchs, and everybody else in Russia, which as we’re seeing from protests, it’s not clear the Russians, as a people, believe in this or think this makes any sense?

Eric Rubin: Well, I think the regime there is working very hard to make sure that people don’t find out what they’re doing in Ukraine. And they’re putting out a lot of false news. They’re saying Jewish President of Ukraine who lost three great uncles in World War II who lost much of his family in the Holocaust, that he’s a Nazi somehow. He’s also a Russian speaker, a native Russian speaker who’s learned Ukrainian. So the idea that he’s some kind of Ukrainian nationalist Nazi is insane. But they want to be sure their people don’t know. So they’ve been shutting down social media platforms, they’ve been jamming Western media, it’s shades of the Cold War.

Tom Temin: And again, before we get to the State Department, that’s an interesting theme, because yes, Putin is calling, you know, whatever his imagined threats in Ukraine as Neo Nazis. And he said something similar during the invasion of the Crimea a few years back that it was inhabited by anti-Semites, which struck my ears is really odd coming from a guy like Vladimir Putin.

Eric Rubin: It’s completely false. It’s completely ridiculous. But you know, they’re heirs to the great Bolshevik tradition. And Putin was educated by the KGB. So the relationship between what they say and the truth is two completely separate things.

Tom Temin: All right, so let’s talk about the State Department. Now, what does it look like inside when things are this tense in the world, when there’s an outbreak of just extraordinary change and violence, really, that involves, in some ways, the interests of the whole planet?

Eric Rubin: Well, I think the first thing is is concern for our people, our Americans and their families who are serving in this part of the world, many of whom have since been evacuated from certainly Ukraine, and the war zone. But now we’re also being evacuated from Belarus, and in part from Russia. A second is our local employees, our what we call Foreign Service nationals in all of these countries, but particularly again, Ukraine, the people who are under fire, many of them left, but some of them were not able to, and they’re now sheltering in basements and cellars and metro stations with their kids. Food is running low in a lot of neighborhoods. And it’s very scary, and a lot of them are friends and former colleagues. Beyond that, obviously, the human toll is enormous. And it’s wrenching for us to see. And obviously, we hope that our country together with the allies are able to put enough pressure on Russia to stop this outrageous invasion. But it’s also hard to see Russia like this. This is not the vision that we had at the end of the Cold War for a relationship with Russia that was based on some shared values. Not all, certainly, but some. And that’s gone for the moment.

Tom Temin: And just getting back to the Foreign Service nationals that work in Russia, that were in the U.S. facilities before they were, you know, evacuated. And also the other places where Russian Army members, Russian military members might get close to in Ukraine and some of the even perhaps adjacent nations. Are those people in danger. Do you feel?

Eric Rubin: Well in Russia, they forced us to fire or lay off all of our Russian employees. We had close to 1,000 in what used to be four diplomatic posts in Russia, which is now down just to the embassy in Moscow. I don’t think any of them are in danger, but they’ve been harassed. They’ve had a hard time, for example, getting new jobs. The Russian government tries very hard to make sure no one will employ them. Their kids have been drafted in the army, so it’s not pleasant. But in Ukraine, there is real reason to think that the people who worked for us could be in very great danger if the Russians succeed in capturing Kyiv and have a list, which they assuredly do. I can assure you they have the embassy phonebook and the names of all the Ukrainians who’d worked for us, many of them for decades. So I think there’s reason to be concerned for their safety, yes.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Ambassador Eric Rubin. He’s president of the American Foreign Service Association, also served in Moscow and Ukraine earlier in his career. What is the planning look like inside the State Department? I mean, who do they involve? What kinds of meetings are going on? Are they going in late to the night? Does it involve the career people on the desks for these regions as well as the political appointees?

Eric Rubin: Yes, absolutely. So in a crisis like this, it’s all hands and obviously, the leadership of our agencies, primarily the State Department and USAID but all of our foreign affairs agencies are working around the clock. Most of the people staffing this are career, either Foreign Service or civil service. And both categories of employees are involved. The people who we brought back from our embassy in Kyiv are mostly working in Washington now on the emergency task force that’s been set up. It is around the clock 24/7. And there are various pieces. One is the diplomatic piece, but the other is trying to help people both American citizens, but also USAID is focused on helping Ukrainians in terms of getting them food and medicine and other things that are running short. So it’s a whole of government effort. And our members are in the middle of it.

Tom Temin: I imagine there’s a lot of interagency interaction going on, too. Homeland Security has been designated, not surprisingly, as the agency to protect U.S. homeland. And then you’ve got the U.N. whole staff and the in the National Security Council involved here, too. So are there collaborations across agency like that?

Eric Rubin: Yeah, no. And the coordination is led from the White House by the National Security Council. And there are more than daily coordination meetings going on. I can’t share details. But, you know, this is a constant effort at coordination, information sharing, as you mentioned, that the United Nations, our mission there is staffed by our career people, as well as political appointees. And at AIB, it’s mostly career people, also with some political appointees. So it’s everyone. And the goal, obviously, is to also make clear with our allies and partners around the world to Russia, that the costs are going to be very high if they don’t pull back and stop this illegal, outrageous assault.

Tom Temin: Now, as President of the American Foreign Service Association, you’re not posted by the State Department at the moment. Your post, if you will, is with the association. But are they asking you questions, anyhow? Is the association involved and your history of experience in that region? Is that something they’re calling? Hey, Eric, we know you’re at the association, but…

Eric Rubin: Yeah, so there’s a whole network of current and former diplomats, Foreign Service officers, civil servants, people who’ve worked on these issues for years, who are in regular contact. Some of it is just sharing ideas and some of it is just those of us who are not in the middle of it doing what we can to support our colleagues who are. But then our association union, AFSA, is very involved in a couple of pieces. One is trying to support the American employees and their families who’ve been evacuated, many of whom had to leave under very difficult conditions. Sometimes they had to leave behind pets, because it was all done by commercial flights, and they couldn’t get space for their pets. Their kids were yanked out of school and are now trying to start school, at least temporarily here in the U.S. Some of them are scattered, the families are allowed to go anywhere they want, employees are here in Washington, so we’re trying to support them. And then we’re trying to support our local employees in Ukraine, the Foreign Service national employees who, who aren’t members of our union, but they are part of the Foreign Service family. And they have been working for our embassy and for our country and for shared goals and values and for their country, as well. And there, a lot of them are in basements and cellars. And a lot of them have volunteered for the Ukrainian military or been drafted or they have husbands and fathers and brothers who have and it’s a very scary time. So we’re doing what we can to help efforts to support them, raise funds for them. There’s a bunch of GoFundMe efforts going on in a couple of other things. So we’re trying to support that, as well.

Tom Temin: So you have financial and physical danger to people in one form or another.

Eric Rubin: Well, yes, I mean, in Ukraine, now the banking system has shut down, the economy has shut down, the roads are mostly closed, it’s almost impossible to get out from central and eastern Ukraine. So people now, if they haven’t left, it’s very hard to go anywhere other than the basement or the metro station. And the scenes are reminiscent of London during the Blitz. It’s horrifying.

Tom Temin: And just on a personal note, again, have you felt the cold finger of Russian cyber hacking?

Eric Rubin: All of us who’ve worked on these issues have been hacked before, had been attacked before. I can’t go into details except to say that I think cyber is a very important part of this and I know that our country and our allies in NATO and others are completely focused on that. But all of us in America have felt the effects of Russian interference and hacking. We know about our elections. But it’s obviously a very big concern. And it’s something I think everybody needs to be aware of is a huge danger to our society.

Tom Temin: All right. Well, we wish you and your associates at the State Department the best here. Ambassador Eric Rubin is president of the American Foreign Service Association. Thanks so much for joining me.

Eric Rubin: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here.

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