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Who is Linda Thomas-Greenfield? US ambassador to UN takes center stage amid Russian invasion of Ukraine

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WASHINGTON — The Russia-Ukraine crisis has thrown Linda Thomas-Greenfield into the global spotlight, transforming the seasoned diplomat into a major force behind the Biden administration's strategy confronting Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, it was Thomas-Greenfield – not Secretary of State Antony Blinken or National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan – who hit Sunday morning's talk shows to outline the White House's latest response to the crisis.

The 69-year-old Thomas-Greenfield appeared on CNN, CBS and NBC to defend Biden's handling of the situation, particularly his decision not to impose sanctions on Moscow until after Putin had launched a massive military invasion of Ukraine.

The U.S. made clear early on "we will escalate" as Russia escalates, she said. "The Russians can be assured" the U.S. will continue to tighten the economic vise on Russia if Putin intensified his attack.

"They will feel the pain," Thomas-Greenfield said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 25: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the media after the United Nations Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters on February 25, 2022 in New York City.
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 25: Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the United States ambassador to the United Nations, addresses the media after the United Nations Security Council meeting at United Nations headquarters on February 25, 2022 in New York City.

Here's what to know about Thomas-Greenfield:

Brought new tone to UN after Trump

A career foreign service official, Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, has served in numerous other posts around the world, from Kenya to Pakistan.

She was the top U.S. diplomat overseeing African affairs in the Obama administration from 2013 to 2017. She was U.S. ambassador to Liberia from 2008 to 2012 and later director general of the Foreign Service and director of Human Resources.

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Biden nominated her as ambassador to the U.N. after former President Donald Trump derided and denigrated the international body for four years. She promised lawmakers she would bring a different tone to the UN than her recent predecessors.

“When America shows up – when we are consistent and persistent, when we exert our influence in accordance with our values – the United Nations can be an indispensable institution for advancing peace, security, and our collective well-being," Thomas-Greenfield told lawmakers during confirmation hearings.

Thomas-Greenfield was confirmed by the Senate last year by a 78-21 vote.

Raised in the segregated South

Thomas-Greenfield was born in Baker, Louisiana, in the early 1950s and attended segregated schools as a child. In a 2019 speech, she described growing up in a town "in which the KKK regularly would come on the weekends and burn a cross in someone's yard."

When she attended Louisiana State University, David Duke, a white supremacist and Klan leader, had a significant presence on campus, Thomas-Greenfield has said, recounting the deep racism she faced during her college years.

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Republicans cited China remarks in opposing her confirmation

Republicans who opposed Thomas-Greenfield's cited a speech she gave in 2019 at a Chinese-funded Confucius Institute affiliated with Savannah State University, a historically black college.

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In the speech, she seemed to downplay China's expansionist ambitions and its investments across Africa, which critics have called predatory "debt diplomacy."

“The United States needs a representative at the United Nations who fully comprehends the diplomatic, economic, technological, military, and moral dimensions of the most serious global challenge we face – the Communist regime in China,” Sen. Bill Hagerty, R-Tenn., said at the time. Hagerty voted against her confirmation.

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A scary close call as a diplomat

Perhaps Thomas-Greenfield's most harrowing experience came in the diplomatic corps.

In 1994, Thomas-Greenfield was dispatched to Rwanda to assess refugee conditions amid the genocide in that country. She said she was confronted by a "glazed-eyed young man" with a machine gun who had apparently mistaken her for a Tusti he had been assigned to kill.

"I didn’t panic. I was afraid, don’t get me wrong," she said in her 2019 remarks. She asked him his name, told him hers, and managed to talk her way out of the situation.

Allies call Thomas-Greenfield 'a diplomatic powerhouse'

Thomas-Greenfield's colleagues and friends call her smart and respected around the world.

"She understands peacekeeping, she understands the UN, she understands the developing world," said Wendy Sherman, who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the Obama administration.

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After she was nominated, Tom Perriello, a former Democratic congressman and diplomat, called Thomas-Greenfield "a diplomatic powerhouse respected around the world." Nicholas Burns, Biden's Senate-confirmed nominee as ambassador to China, gave similar praise, saying Thomas-Greenfield is "universally admired and respected in the Foreign Service."

Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is Linda Thomas-Greenfield? US ambassador to UN takes center stage