Karen Donfried, the United States' senior diplomat in Europe, will step down to focus on her family, a State Department official said on Monday, leaving a key position vacant as Washington seeks to keep its allies focused on helping Ukraine's war effort.
Assistant Secretary Donfried's 18-month tenure, which began in September 2021, has been defined by Europe's largest conflict since World War II and the United States' push to establish and strengthen a cohesive Western posture against Russia, according to Reuters.
She has been one of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken's senior advisors, going often to Europe to engage with US allies as President Joe Biden worked to increase transatlantic ties following previous President Donald Trump's administration's unilateral attitude.
When Russia's top ambassador in Washington was called last Tuesday following the crash of a US drone over the Black Sea after being intercepted by Russian jets, she confronted him in one of her final high-level meetings at the State Department.
The event, the first known direct confrontation between Washington and Russia since Ukraine's invasion, has strained already strained ties between the two former Cold War adversaries.
According to a Department official, she was scheduled to leave at the end of March. There has been no choice in her successor to lead the Bureau of Europe and Eurasian Affairs, which encompasses 50 countries 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 former foreign policy expert turned ambassador was one of the last senior US officials to visit Moscow before Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. She also joined Blinken to Kyiv after the war began in September.
During her December 2021 visit to Russia, she met with key Russian officials, including Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, and expressed US worries over Moscow's military buildup near Ukraine.
Since the start of the war, contact with Russia has been rare, with spy chiefs and diplomats meeting in foreign countries and sometimes on the fringes of international meetings.
The US blamed Tuesday's drone incident on Russia's growing aggressive behavior, while Moscow denied any collision occurred and ordered America to stay out of its airspace.
Moscow claimed that the use of the drone demonstrated that the US was directly involved in the Ukraine conflict, which the West has worked hard to avoid.
Donfried previously served as senior director for Europe at the National Security Council during the Obama administration, and as a member of the State Department's policy planning team during the George W. Bush administration, where he was responsible for big-picture strategy creation.
Prior to joining the Biden administration, she was the first female head of the German Marshall Fund, a policy group.