Before Russia invaded Ukraine, Canadian diplomats fled Kyiv, leaving Ukrainian staff behind and raising questions about their role in war.

Should diplomats stay in place during war or evacuate

The U.S. embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine, 12 February 2022. The United States, like Canada and some other nations, ordered the evacuation of most embassy staff before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24. (AP Photo/Andrew Kravchenko, File)

When Ambassador Maximus was sent from Constantinople to assassinate Attila the Hun in the 5th century, he expected to find ruthless barbarians. Instead, historians say, he found a sophisticated civilization and took the vital information back to his Emperor, saving Constantinople from Attila’s plunder.

Today’s ambassadors no longer play such significant roles as envoys between countries. Modern communications make it easy for world leaders to gather intelligence and meet each other directly.

Still, ambassadors and their embassy staff are important to interpret local conditions, support citizens abroad and evacuate people to safety during conflicts.

When Canadian Ambassador Larisa Galadza and her Canadian staff fled Ukraine in February before Russia invaded, it raised questions about the role of embassies and diplomats during a conflict.

Should embassy staff stay in place to help their allies and citizens? Or should they evacuate to protect their diplomatic staff?

Canadian diplomats left Ukrainian staff behind.

Canada evacuated Canadian staff from their embassy in Kyiv before Russia invaded on Feb 24. The diplomats left behind their Ukrainian staff even though they had intelligence that these staff members were likely on Russian lists of people to detain or kill.

The 50 or so Ukrainian employees, many of whom had worked with Canadians in the embassy for years, begged to be relocated to safety in Poland or Lviv in western Ukraine but were left to shelter in place.

The embassy also left thousands of Canadians in Ukraine without consular assistance.

Most other foreign embassies relocated to Lviv to organize evacuations and repatriations of their citizens. One example is Brazil, which moved its embassy to Lviv, opened an additional consulate in Chernivtsi and helped hundreds of Brazilians evacuate from Ukraine. Poland’s ambassador to Ukraine, Bartosz Cichocki, has stayed in Kyiv throughout the war, telling media that many tasks require being physically in place.

Britain, the United States and Australia also appear to have evacuated and left local staff in danger. Diplomats at Britain’s embassy in Kyiv were deeply unhappy with the way their Ukrainian colleagues were treated, according to British media reports, and made their feelings clear to officials in London.

U.S. diplomats warned some of their Ukrainian staff members that they might be on Russia kill lists, sources said. But Ukrainian staff at the U.S. embassy accused State Department officials of backtracking on promises of support as they scrambled to escape the invasion.

Stuck in a liability culture.

Historically, diplomats have been the last to evacuate a country in conflict, said Halvard Leira, a fellow at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs. In World War Two, American diplomats stayed in Germany until May 1942, five months after the United States declared war.

Canada’s embassy in France also stayed open for nine months after World War Two erupted.

“Keeping diplomats in the war gave Canada its own analysis of the situation and relationships with decision-makers,” said Ben Rowswell, president of the Canadian International Council.

During the fall of Saigon in 1975, Americans evacuated thousands of Vietnamese employees and their families. And in 2006, Canada evacuated 15,000 Canadians and Lebanese citizens during the Israel-Hezbollah conflict in just a few weeks.

What is concerning in Canada’s evacuation of Ukraine is that Canada dismantled its apparatus to help evacuate other Canadians, allies and local staff even before war broke out, Leira said. Canadian staff members evacuated their pets while there were hundreds of visiting Canadians and others at risk in Ukraine, he said.

Canada’s Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly said that the government is examining whether Canada has the same duty of care to locally hired staff at foreign embassies and consulates that it owes to members of the Canadian foreign service.

Ambassador Galadza issued a statement in August, “addressing the question raised in recent media articles about the safety of locally engaged staff at the time of Russia’s invasion in February.” She said she had assisted Ukrainian staff after Canada’s evacuation and spoken with them several times a week.

“I also offered our assistance with everything from immigration processes to sourcing fuel for evacuation by car,” Galadza said.

Roman Waschuk, a former Canadian ambassador to Serbia and Ukraine, said many Western governments are stuck in a liability culture that makes them overly cautious and that they fall short of their diplomatic duties.

Waschuk is one of five former Canadian ambassadors who publicly asked the Canadian government to review procedures and “bring them in closer line with what the majority of Canada would do in such extreme circumstances.”

Many Canadians are independently helping Ukraine emerge from the horrors of the invasion. There are humanitarians supporting relief efforts, business owners bolstering the economy and journalists documenting the terrors and triumphs for the world.

Should Canadian diplomats help, too?

Three questions to consider:

  1. How has the role of ambassador changed in the past century?
  2. What are the main duties of foreign embassies today?
  3. Under what conditions do you think that diplomats should evacuate in conflicts?
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Katharine Lake Berz is a management consultant and writer, and a fellow in the Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto. She was a consultant at McKinsey & Company for 10 years and has since advised a number of not-for-profit organizations. She holds a Bachelor of Commerce from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, and a Master of Philosophy in International Relations from Cambridge University.

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WorldShould diplomats stay in place during war — or evacuate?