UK ambassador digs in against Russia

British Ambassador to the U.S. Dame Karen Pierce
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British Ambassador to the U.S. Dame Karen Pierce is two years into a four-year appointment in Washington.

British Ambassador to the U.S. Dame Karen Pierce said she’s likely spent as much time with Russians as she has Americans over her diplomatic career, and as Moscow’s war in Ukraine reaches its ninth month, she offered cutting advice for dealing with them.  

“Look at capabilities, not intentions,” Pierce said in a recent interview with The Hill.  

Pierce is two years into a four-year appointment in Washington. While her tenure started amid the uncertainty and isolation of the pandemic — and after her predecessor resigned after criticizing then-President Trump in a leaked email — she’s uniquely ready to serve as a go-between for the United Kingdom and the U.S. amid Russia’s war.   

“I spent a lot of my early career working on conventional arms control when the Warsaw Pact was still in existence, so it’s quite a long time ago,” she said, referring to the Soviet-era military alliance built up as a counter to NATO. “But it did at least give me a sense of how the Russians operate and what motivates them, what their military doctrine is.”   

While the U.S. leads in military support for Ukraine – with nearly $20 billion delivered – the U.K. is the second-largest provider of such assistance, with a commitment of $3.8 billion, or about 0.2 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.  

Yet solidarity among Ukraine’s supporters is under strain amid domestic pressures and changing political leadership.   

The United Kingdom has ripped through three prime ministers in three months, and the Biden administration likely faces a more adversarial Congress after the dust settles from the midterm elections.   

And there are voices in each country calling for closer scrutiny on military and economic assistance.   

“I would say there is always an undercurrent of that about any overseas aid, but it’s only a small undercurrent,” Pierce said about domestic pressure in the U.K.   

“The war in Ukraine, I think people in Britain do see it as akin to the lead up to the Second World War, without saying there’s going to be a bigger conflict.”   

The new British government under Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is expected to announce on Friday whether it will be able to commit to increasing its defense budget to 3 percent of its GDP, a key signal over whether the country will be able to sustain support for Ukraine and reinforce NATO amid Russia’s threats on the continent.   

“We would definitely like to increase defense spending,” Pierce said.   

“We certainly believe, as the new American National Security Strategy recognizes, that the threat from Russia has grown in the last 12 months and that needs to be counted, even if China remains the underlying, what Americans call, pacing threat.”  

Pierce’s interview with The Hill took place at the recently renovated British Embassy in northwest Washington. It’s one of the largest diplomatic missions in D.C. and one of the largest British embassies around the globe, with a total staff of about 400 that includes diplomats, military officials and others focused on about 20 different government departments coordinating bilaterally with the U.S.  

In the building’s lobby is a marble wall etched with the names of ambassadors stretching all the way back to 1791.  

Not yet inscribed is “Karen Pierce,” the first woman to hold the posting.   

Pierce is not overly sentimental about being a woman breaking new ground — she was also the first woman to serve as British ambassador to the United Nations when she was appointed in 2018 — but she emphasizes that diversity informs the best policies and decisions, in particular related to diplomacy, peace and security.  

She does, however, say that having women in powerful positions sends an important message to those carrying out violence against women, such as rape as a war crime by Russian forces in Ukraine and the Taliban’s oppressing of women in Afghanistan.  

“I think there’s something very important, representationally, about people like the Russians, like dictators, like rapists, seeing powerful women in powerful, and well understood high level positions,” she said. “Because it shows that something is going right, and I think that can give hope and comfort to other women who may not be so fortunate. But I would hope it would also put some of the perpetrators on notice that they can’t have it all their own way.”  

Pierce started her diplomatic career in the early 1980s, working on political-military affairs and arms control ahead of the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union.  

She’s been at the forefront of diplomacy on some of the most harrowing conflicts of the 20th and 21st century, focused on the Balkans during the war in Bosnia and head of political-military affairs on Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001. She later served as ambassador in Kabul in 2015.   

In March 2018, when she arrived at the United Nations as permanent representative, she was faced with confronting her Russian counterpart over Moscow’s assassination attempt in the British town of Salisbury of a former Russian spy using a deadly, Soviet-era nerve agent, Novichok.  

“​​There is one country among us … Russia, which is playing fast and loose with our collective security and the international institutions that protect us,” she said during a meeting of the Security Council at the time that was convened by Russia pushing back on the chemical weapons accusations.  

“We cannot ignore the way that Russia seeks to undermine the international institutions, which have kept us safe since the end of the Second World War,” she added.  

Pierce has a talent for mixing blunt and realistic assessments of the state of the world with an air of approachability and good humor.  

“She’s a very clever woman. Let’s start with that,” Alexandra Papadopoulou, the Greek ambassador to the U.S., told The Hill. The two diplomats served as deputy permanent representatives to the U.N. in the mid-2000s and worked closely together on the Security Council at the time.  

Papadopoulou described Pierce as a “breath of fresh air” but also as “a tough lady, yes, oh my god, you don’t survive in this environment if you are just a puppet.”  

“She knows what she’s talking about, and she has an opinion — because some diplomats try to evade discussions. She never evades discussions.”  

And as the war in Ukraine drags on, Pierce reflected on how the relationship with Russian diplomats has changed.   

She said the relationship used to be professional — she still gets birthday messages from some Moscow diplomats — but that reasonable Russian envoys have either been sidelined or are now pedaling lies and disinformation.   

“I think that’s the difference, you could disagree with them before — and their human rights record has always been something we would push back on — but on the world’s stage, they were statesmen, and now that’s not happening,” she said.

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