As President Trump faces the third impeachment trial in U.S. history over his attempt to extort Ukraine into becoming a political bludgeon for his 2020 re-election campaign, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is headed to Kyiv. Starting on Jan. 3, he’ll meet with top Ukrainian officials in a trip that the State Department describes as set “to reaffirm” U.S. support for Ukraine.
Pompeo will arrive in a Kyiv deeply perturbed by the scandal that led to Trump’s impeachment, and somewhat mystified by the political dynamics that the imbroglio has brewed. Ukraine watchers describe a complex picture of damage to Ukraine-U.S. relations as U.S. policymakers pull back from the now-radioactive country.
One Ukrainian analyst told TPM that the scandal had created a “minefield” for the Zelensky administration, as the country copes with having become a political football in the 2020 presidential election while trying to retain U.S. support.
American policy towards the fledgling Eastern European nation remains unchanged on the official level, but it now lacks key officials to implement it and is marred by suspicions on all sides that the White House is not committed to the policy of support that it says it is pursuing.
“This whole affair damaged American policy,” John Herbst, who served as ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006, told TPM, “but there is worry on the Ukrainian side that U.S. support will be weaker.”
From Kyiv, U.S. policy appears frozen. The loss of Kurt Volker — the special representative assigned to handle Ukraine-Russia tensions who resigned after his involvement in the pressure campaign became known — remains a sore point for many Ukrainians, who see the lack of a U.S. official designated for the crisis as a significant weakness.
Former Ukrainian foreign minister Pavlo Klimkin said last week that U.S. policymakers were trying to “avoid Ukraine and keep their distance.”
“How is this not a catastrophe?” Klimkin asked, adding that he doubted the situation would change until the 2020 presidential elections concluded.
“What’s a whole year in the life of Ukraine?” Klimkin said. “A whole year of nobody in the states who would be handling Ukraine.”
George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, remains in place. But other signals suggest weakness on the U.S. side, or at least a focus on theatrics over actual policy.
Pompeo’s Kyiv visit, for instance, will begin on Jan. 3, 2020 — timed one day after the current ambassador William Taylor departs the country. Pompeo reportedly scheduled the visit to avoid having to be photographed with Taylor, who testified to the House Intelligence Committee during its impeachment inquiry.
The State Department’s announcement previewing Pompeo’s visit is chock-full of statements that only need to be made when they are in doubt, though his visit doubles as an endorsement of longstanding U.S. support for Ukraine as it faces down Russian aggression.
Pompeo will “reaffirm U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the announcement reads, and will attend a wreath-laying ceremony for soldiers killed in the war with Russian-backed proxies in the country’s east.
“This is the biggest problem for U.S.-Ukraine relations since independence,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, a Kyiv-based political analyst, of the fallout from Trump’s pressure campaign. “But for us, we’ve been dealing with nonstop catastrophes since 2014.”
The Ukrainian government has been trying to keep its distance since the scandal was made public in September 2019.
When Giuliani visited Kyiv at the beginning of December, Fesenko said, the administration of President Volodymyr Zelensky ordered its officials not to meet with the Trump attorney. Andriy Yermak, the official who met with Giuliani in Madrid in August, was conveniently in London for a conference, while the former New York City mayor was only able to secure meetings with people known locally as being discredited or the pawns of oligarchs.
Though Giuliani’s efforts to act as a shadow diplomat appear ongoing — he met with Trump after his visit to Ukraine — there has been no Senate-confirmed U.S. ambassador to the country since Marie Yovanovitch was sacked in May 2019. And while official U.S. policy has not changed, the scandal has provided fodder for those who would call American support for the country into question.
At the same time, Zelensky’s state-visit to Washington — the withholding of which was a feature of the pressure campaign — has been indefinitely delayed.
“It wouldn’t look very good for the Ukrainian president to meet with any candidate during the U.S. presidential campaign,” Fesenko noted wryly.
Anders Aslund, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, pointed out that there have been far fewer ministerial-level visits from Ukrainians to Washington since the scandal began.
“It’s a difficult situation,” he told TPM. “But it’s important for Ukraine to have good relations with the U.S. to show that Ukraine can continue to resist Russian pressure.”