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State Department's 'dire' travel warnings hurt US companies seeking reconstruction contracts, ex-CIA officials warn

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US companies are likely missing out on contracts to rebuild Ukraine and support its fight against Russia due to overly aggressive State Department travel advisories, warn a former senior CIA official and the ex-head of BP’s Global Intelligence and Analysis team.

The State Department's blanket warning against all travel by Americans to any part of Ukraine prompts companies to avoid or curtail visits even though parts of the country are quite safe, argue Glenn Corn and Paul Kolbe in a column in national security journal The Cipher Brief.

"Companies have repeatedly complained to us that dire threat warnings compel corporate leadership teams to deny company executives and personnel the ability to visit Ukraine and promote business," write Corn and Kolbe. "Insurance companies are unwilling to provide coverage to representatives of U.S. firms because U.S. threat levels and travel warnings are so dire."

The US State Department maintains a Level 4 advisory for Ukraine, the highest possible, simply stating "Do Not Travel." It warns US citizens who plan to travel there anyway should leave DNA samples with their doctors, share important documents and passwords with relatives, and discuss funeral wishes with loved ones before doing so.

But "to be honest, we’ve felt more at risk in some American cities than while in Ukraine," Corn and Kolbe wrote of a recent visit to the country. "We should be embarrassed that as Ukrainians go to work, take their children to parks, visit relatives and refuse to be terrorized by Moscow’s brutal aggression against their country – American guidance treats all of Ukraine as occupied or as on the front line."

Corn is a former senior CIA executive with 34 years of experience in intelligence and related areas, and Kolbe, another former CIA officer, has also led The Intelligence Project at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and BP’s Global Intelligence and Analysis team.

"Other foreign governments do not have the same restrictions and foreign government officials and business leaders are able to meet with Ukrainian officials and business partners, secure lucrative contracts and establish a foothold in a European market that promises to be highly lucrative in the future," they wrote.

In all of 2023, they point out, Ukraine received only 50,000 visits from the US, while neighboring Poland received 2.3 million.

"In Ukrainian eyes, future business will go to those that are present in their hour of need," the writers state. "One can’t hope to understand reality, forge relationships, do deals, or effectively monitor aid and supplies while standing on the sidelines."

They argue that modifying travel advisories to reflect the safety or danger of various areas of Ukraine would amount to a "secret weapon" in the US push to help Ukraine win its war against Russia and to rebuild the country.

"The fact is that most of the country is safe to visit," they write. "Kyiv, Odessa, L’viv, and other cities across the country are keeping calm and carrying on. Streets are full, restaurants are busy, schools are in session – Ukrainians are living their lives even though their country is at war."

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