As the crisis over Ukraine continued to heat up, US Embassy Kyiv announced early January 24 that the State Department had, “authorized the voluntary departure (‘authorized departure’) of US government employees and ordered the departure of family members (‘ordered departure’) of US government employees at the US Embassy in Kyiv, effective immediately.”

Even before the announcement, media reports of secret deliberations had sparked energetic debates on Twitter and Facebook over whether taking the Embassy to Authorized Departure (AD) or Ordered Departure (OD) would be a prudent measure of self-protection, or more fuel for the flames of the crisis. Or maybe both?

The internet being the internet, many of the folks arguing about the change in the Embassy’s Departure status are a little fuzzy on what it means. Herewith, a primer:

So what is Authorized Departure?

It is the process whereby the Chief of Mission (ambassador or charge d’affaires; I’ll just say ambassador to keep it simple) of a US embassy or other diplomatic post (embassy, for short) requests Washington’s permission to reduce the number of personnel and family members at post in light of an actual or looming crisis by permitting volunteers to fly to the States  (commercially, if flights are available), with the government paying for airfare and a per diem allowance. This can be triggered by anything from an earthquake to a coup, endemic terrorism, or incipient invasion.

Under Authorized Departure, some American staff and family members volunteer to return to the States until the storm passes. Those departing on AD don’t get to decide when to return to post – and their jobs, homes, schools. They may end up leaving pets behind with friends at post, not knowing when they will be reunited. They hole up in a hotel or with a relative indefinitely.

To the extent possible, they may get some work done remotely – during COVID, Zoom diplomacy became much more acceptable, including for personnel in safe havens back home. Eventually, their employers may allow them to return to post or decide that’s infeasible, and reassign them. Or some people in Departure status might decide they don’t want to return to post, and request reassignment. Or quit the government and go to dental school. (Admittedly, during COVID, with everyone on the planet roughing it, these Departure hassles seem less special.) AD/OD does not apply to an Embassy’s local staff, who generally are expected to show up for work as long as security conditions permit – often at great personal risk.

Who decides to place an Embassy in Departure Status?

The ambassador decides whether to ask the State Department to place a post on AD/OD – Washington makes the final call. They will be guided by the deliberations of the post’s senior officers, meeting as the Emergency Action Committee. The Committee will rely on the Embassy’s Emergency Action Plan (EAP) — a fat manual assembled with great care by the post’s interagency team and frequently updated, to provide a comprehensive blueprint in the event of the most likely natural or human-induced crises. (There is nothing secret about any of this — go google “embassy emergency action plan” and come right back; I’ll wait.) The EAP process is overseen from Washington but is tailored for local conditions.

The State Department runs the embassies, but since almost all US missions are staffed by an assortment of agencies – State, Defense, and USAID providing the largest contingents – a request will trigger interagency discussion, much of it informal, in Washington.

Washington doesn’t like to say no to Departure requests (and will sometimes coax a reluctant ambassador to ask.) Ambassadors don’t make these requests lightly, and they do so having considered the likely negative reaction of the host government. These decisions are driven by a strong sense of obligation toward the safety of their people (all Americans in country, not just the embassy community — more on that later). And if you’re expecting trouble, it makes sense to reduce the number of at-risk members of the community, and get them moving out before commercial flights start drying up.

Does Washington have to place a post on Authorized Departure for people to leave?

Depends. When a crisis is brewing, family members don’t need to wait for AD to be declared, unlike employees, who need to request permission. But leave without AD and they’re going to have to pay their own way. Employees cannot leave without authorization. When posts go to AD, the government starts paying air fares and per diem, which means employees and their family members may start lobbying the ambassador to request AD. (In my experience, it’s not unusual for some embassy staff/families who have been pressing for AD to decide against leaving once it is authorized – they just want the flexibility to get out of Dodge in a hurry should worse come to worst. It’s like being a citizen of an authoritarian state and having an exit visa in your pocket.)

So Authorized Departure is voluntary and Ordered Departure is, well, ordered?

Pretty much. If conditions are more threatening, the ambassador may recommend the embassy move from AD to OD, or even skip AD and go straight to OD. When OD is in effect, the ambassador has more authority to order people, including family members, out of the country. In the case of Embassy Kyiv, the government split the difference – all family members of American employees were ordered out, while employees who wish to depart are permitted to do so.

Does Ordered Departure mean a complete shutdown of the embassy is imminent?

Usually not. Media reports sometimes give the impression that AD/OD is a prelude to a complete shutdown. That is usually not the case — an embassy may continue to function for months or even years in Departure status, at a reduced footprint.

In line with the Emergency Action Plan, embassies maintain lists of employees whose presence is a priority during an emergency, and those who the embassy can get by without. That does not mean staff in the second category are “non-essential” (everybody hates that term) – but there are some jobs that cannot be done effectively or simply are not a priority during a crisis. Maybe you try to hang on to all your consular officers to assist American citizens in distress, for example, but the folks doing less time-sensitive trade promotion or cultural affairs get on a plane.

In practice, those stay/go lists may not hold up in the face of the realities of Foreign Service family life, and there will be some last-minute rearranging. The embassy spokesperson or police liaison the ambassador considers vital may be a single parent who leaves with the kids. The large number of married/partnered (“tandem”) Foreign Service personnel at an embassy have tough choices to make — does one employee/parent stay at post while the other escorts the kids to safe haven, or do they all depart together? Semper gumby (always flexible)!

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So when DOES an Embassy evacuate? What does that look like?

Expensive, dangerous, and ugly. Evacuation usually comes as a last resort with a complete breakdown of civil order and governmental authority in the host capital. American staff will all depart – sometimes, if evacuation by commercial air or an embassy-organized convoy to a safe neighboring country is unfeasible, with the assistance of US Marines or other military forces conducting a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO). Governments that shut down their embassies in such circumstances (not just the US) will expect a new host government — sometimes led by victorious coup leaders or rebels with grudges against some foreigners — to respect the sanctity of diplomatic premises and not carry out reprisals against local staff or expats who stayed behind. As we saw with the chaotic pullout from Afghanistan in August, contingency plans do not always survive contact with reality. (More on this another day.)

That’s lots more than I needed to know about process. What does all this mean diplomatically?

As a rule, host governments hate it when the Americans announce they are sending people out on AD or OD, particularly in the case of a political or security crisis. They see it as a vote of no-confidence that the locals can hold it together, which might actually increase instability. They tend to be more understanding of the embassy thinning out after, say, an earthquake.

For this reason, ambassadors have been known to be reluctant to call for AD or OD. Eventually, Washington, or conditions on the ground, might force their hand. The last US Ambassador to the Republic of Vietnam was widely criticized for waiting too long to request evacuation of Embassy Saigon in 1975 and spent the rest of his life defending his decisions.

In the event of delay, an ambassador may find threat conditions abate, the crisis passes, and he or she will be lauded for steely-eyed nerve and prescient judgment. But wait too long, and it may prove too late to get everyone out without military assistance. That’s how you end up with helicopters on rooftops, images of defeat and disaster seared into retinas, years of hearings, and politicized recriminations.

So why can’t Authorized or Ordered Departure take place in secret? Why announce it?

Two reasons. First, if you’ve reached this point because of the heightened danger to embassy folk, you are required to inform all Americans resident in or traveling to the host country. This is related to the US Government’s longstanding “No Double Standard” policy, which directs that: “If the [State] Department shares information with the official US community, it should also make the same or similar information available to the non-official US community if the underlying threat applies to both official and non-official U.S. citizens/nationals.” That policy is etched in stone and it’s a good one.

Second, you couldn’t keep this decision secret for long even if you wanted to. I mean, you could try. You could urge the embassy community not to tell friends and family they’re coming home unexpectedly, and most people would have the discipline to play along. Sometimes security conditions warrant this approach, or at least of a delay in making an announcement. But somebody — local travel office, airline staff, somebody’s parents back home, somebody’s kid on Insta — will figure it out and spread the word that the Americans are leaving.

One benefit of AD/OD being public is that it may induce some of the non-official Americans the Embassy has been urging to leave the country for their own safety to finally start packing up. Let’s hope the embassy was able to retain sufficient consular staff (including those unheralded local staff) to help get to safety those Americans who are finally ready to move.

Does it matter to the outcome in Ukraine?

Other steps the US and the European allies take (or don’t take) to forestall Russian aggression will matter a great deal more to the outcome in Ukraine than whether somebody gets spooked by the embassy’s departure status.

You probably should have led with that. 

Ambassador Philip Kosnett (Ret.) is a Senior Fellow with the Center for European Policy Analysis’ (CEPA) Transatlantic Defense and Security program. He recently left the Foreign Service after a career representing the United States in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia (including four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan) focused on international security and governance. His senior roles included Ambassador to Kosovo, Charge d’Affaires in Turkey and Iceland, and Deputy Chief of Mission in Uzbekistan.

Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.

Europe's Edge
CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America.
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