The Foreign Service Journal, March 2024

AFSA NEWS 68 MARCH 2024 | THE FOREIGN SERVICE JOURNAL Diplomats at Work Lynette Behnke on Evacuating Ukraine On Oct. 25, 2023, AFSA invited Foreign Service Officer Lynette Behnke to be our guest on AFSA’s “Diplomats at Work” series. Behnke is currently the unit chief for the Republic of Korea and Mongolia in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Behnke served as deputy political counselor in Kyiv ahead of Russia’s 2022 attack on Ukraine. She currently serves as a State Department representative on the AFSA Governing Board. Behnke talked about the work she and the rest of the team in Kyiv were doing in the leadup to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, when the U.S. and its allies were still working to determine exactly what the Russian government was planning. “As we started to get inklings that something bigger might be coming, we had to really go into overdrive to try to figure out what was going on, what the Ukrainians were thinking about it, what our partners and allies were thinking about it,” said Behnke. “I remember going to a meeting with the defense minister with the chief of mission and having a really hard and kind of scary conversation about what might come to pass.” Later, with the invasion imminent, Behnke had to send her family out of Ukraine while she herself stayed on. She recalled taking her kids sledding the night before they left for good. “We didn’t really know what was going on, but we did have to explain to my 4-yearold that she was leaving, and mom wasn’t coming, … she has to help keep the bad guys out of Kyiv. And so [my daughter] made me a sword out of cardboard. She cut out a sword and colored it and left it with me and said, ‘This is to help you keep the bad guys out of Kyiv’.” “I think it’s one of the things that is incredible and not that well known about the Foreign Service: the sacrifices that all our families make. … It’s disruptive. Your kids have to make new friends; your partner has to find a new job. Families make these incredible sacrifices, and it became really obvious in that moment, with my family and with many other families. But it’s true around the world.” Behnke commented on the stoic way Ukrainians took warnings of an imminent Russian invasion. “There was a real dissonance between the conversations we were having internally with the government, and then walking around this city that was living its life to the fullest,” in part because, she explained, “they were already occupied.” Ukrainians had been at war with Russia for eight years, and “they were used to the level of fear and uncertainty that came with some of these stark warnings in a way that I certainly wasn’t. … I think the first time I heard an average person on the street talking in any way seriously about a Russian invasion was the weekend before I left the country.” Behnke also discussed the importance of diplomacy more broadly. She said a good diplomat is a “cross between a journalist and a lobbyist.” Like journalists, she said, diplomats gather information and write reports. But like lobbyists, she explained, “you are going in and advocating and lobbying for issues or actions the U.S. government wants another government to take.” When asked what makes a good political officer, Behnke said interpersonal skills are important, as are writing skills. Diplomats need to “have hard conversations where people don’t necessarily agree, whether that’s with your colleagues or a foreign government.” A broad knowledge of global affairs is also important for any Foreign Service generalist. “You don’t need to come in being an expert on South Korea in order to succeed,” said Behnke, speaking of her current role. But you will need to “become an expert on South Korea in about one month, when you’re then called on to speak for the U.S. government on Korea policy, for example.” Many thanks to Lynette Behnke for taking the time to share her experiences for Diplomats @ Work, an AFSA virtual speaker series designed to share inspiring stories about the work of Foreign Service officers with university students, community colleges, and other local organizations throughout the U.S. Listen to the entire conversation at n Lynette Behnke at the airport in Kyiv ahead of the Russian invasion. Lynette Behnke COURTESY LYNETTE BEHNKE