WASHINGTON, March 20 (Reuters) – The top U.S. diplomat to Europe Karen Donfried will step down to focus on her family, a State Department spokesperson said on Monday, leaving an important post empty as Washington works to keep its allies focused on supporting Ukraine’s war effort.
The 18-month tenure of Assistant Secretary Donfried, who assumed the role in September 2021, has been marked by the biggest conflict in Europe since the World War Two and the U.S. push to form and solidify a unified Western position against Russia.
She has been among U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s key aides, traveling frequently to Europe to meet with U.S. partners as President Joe Biden sought to repair and re-energize transatlantic ties damaged by the unilateral approach of former president Donald Trump’s administration.
In one of her last high-level meetings at the State Department, she confronted Russia’s top diplomat in Washington, when he was summoned last Tuesday following the crash of a U.S. drone over the Black Sea after being intercepted by Russian jets.
The incident, the first known direct confrontation between Washington and Moscow since the invasion of Ukraine, has further damaged already tense ties between the two former Cold War foes.
She was set to leave her post at the end of March, the Department spokesperson said. No decision has been made yet on her successor to oversee the Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs which covers 50 countries that stretch from the United Kingdom to Azerbaijan.
“Karen has deftly managed our relationships with many of our most important allies and partners at a time when Kremlin aggression threatened decades of peace and prosperity,” Blinken said in a statement seen by Reuters ahead of publication.
“Her policy acumen, integrity, and drive defined her leadership as Assistant Secretary and represent the highest values of public service,” Blinken added.
The soft-spoken foreign policy expert turned diplomat was among the last senior U.S. officials to have gone to Moscow before Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022. She also accompanied Blinken to Kyiv in a September trip after the war began.
During her trip to Russia in December 2021, she met senior Russian officials including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov and raised U.S. concerns about Russia’s military build up near Ukraine.
Since the war began, dialogue with Moscow has been infrequent, with spy chiefs and diplomats having occasional conversations in third countries and sometimes on the sidelines of international summits.
The United States attributed Tuesday’s drone incident to increasingly aggressive behavior by Russia, while Moscow denied there was any collision and warned Washington to keep away from its air space.
Moscow said the flying of the drone was evidence that the United States was directly participating in the Ukraine war, something the West has taken pains to avoid.
Donfried previously worked in the Obama administration as senior director for Europe at the National Security Council and earlier in the administration of George W. Bush as a member of the State Department’s policy planning team, responsible for big-picture strategy formulation.
Prior to joining the Biden administration, she served as the first female president of the policy organization the German Marshall Fund.