Mike Pompeo, the US secretary of state, is due to meet with Ukraine’s president in Kiev this Thursday as part of a five-country tour that includes neighbouring Belarus.
The trip is significant on account of it being the first official contact a senior Trump official has made with Ukraine since the impeachment inquiry began in September. But it takes on additional piquancy on the back of scandal In Washington.
On Friday, Mr Pompeo was reported to have shouted at an NPR journalist after she questioned him on Ukraine. He is then alleged to have snapped: “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” An expletive is said to have been used somewhere in that sentence. A day later, the secretary of state accused the journalist of lying, but did not actually dispute the substance of what she reported.
For Ukraine, the views of a man considered to be Mr Trump’s closest lieutenant are not entirely unexpected. But they come as a body blow to the Ukrainian leadership, which has spent much of the last four months contorting itself to accommodate the Trump administration in the impeachment scandal.
Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, is one of several of the country’s officials to have denied that Mr Trump offered an explicit “quid pro quo” – an investigation into rival Joe Biden in exchange for military aid – even though evidence suggests the contrary. In a now infamous telephone call on 25 July, Mr Trump asked Mr Zelensky to “do us a favour”, before mentioning the desirability of investigating a bogus conspiracy theory involving Mr Biden and Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that employed Mr Biden’s son from 2014.
As The Independent has previously reported, Mr Zelensky’s officials knew about vital military aid being stopped before the news went public in August.
For his part, Mr Trump has denied that a freeze on $391m of military assistance was tied to the premise of an investigation into his rival. This weekend, that already tenuous argument was made even less respectable with the publication of extracts of a new book by former security adviser John Bolton.
The adviser, who fell out with Mr Trump and resigned in the summer, said the president made such a link clear and explicit. He also suggested that Mr Pompeo recalled Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch – while knowing that there was no basis to the criticism against her. Ms Yovanovitch was ousted following pressure from Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, who increasingly seems to be Mr Trump’s main point man on Ukraine.
Ahead of Mr Pompeo’s trip, speculation has centred on what message the secretary of state may deliver from Mr Trump when he meets with Mr Zelensky, ministers and other civic society leaders.
According to state department briefings, Mr Pompeo is expected to “reaffirm” US commitment to Ukraine. Beyond that, all the traditional themes will be on the table: progress in war-and-peace negotiations with Russia; the domestic reform agenda; energy and military cooperation. It remains to be seen whether the scandals over impeachment will be touched in any significant way.
“It is difficult to imagine Pompeo bringing up the issue given the current atmosphere,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, an independent political analyst in Kiev. “Perhaps he will pass a message from Trump in a tete-a-tete scenario with Zelensky, but it would be too risky while other staff are around. Kiev certainly won’t be bringing up the NPR scandal.”
Since being caught up in the US political storm, Ukraine has maintained a position of increasingly strained neutrality. There is certainly little affection inside the Ukrainian elite for an American president who has sided with Moscow on many key foreign policy issues. But there is also growing acceptance that Mr Trump will weather the impeachment inquiry, and is well placed to win a second term.
“The leadership understands they will likely have to deal with this administration for another four years,” said David Marples, a professor at the University of Alberta, Canada. “All they can do is smile, and hope that the US continues to give them weapons.”
“The mantra is: don’t argue with Trump,” agreed Mr Fesenko.
The more pragmatic among Ukraine’s leaders suspect the impeachment scandal could eventually play out in Kiev’s favour – so long as they avoid making concrete commitments.
“There is a sense that because of the growing scandal, Ukraine is protected against the most outrageous of Trump’s wheezes,” said Nataliya Gumenyuk, commentator and founder of Hromadske.tv, a prominent news outlet in Kiev. “Trump can’t openly go against Ukraine. He can’t freeze aid. So while Thursday is likely to bring little in the way of progress, it also won’t be awful.”
One thing that may also – finally – be put on the table is a visit to the White House. Evidence released during the impeachment inquiry suggested that carrot was repeatedly dangled in front of the new Zelensky administration as part of a quid pro quo.
For a long time, Kiev’s new leadership was very keen on the idea. A visit to Washington would have been a key endorsement for the war-torn country, especially in light of tired alliances in Europe. Now, with Kiev keen to limit exposure to the impeachment scandal and an American election campaign, the calculus has changed. A visit would arguably serve only Trump’s interest.
But if a White House visit was offered, Mr Zelensky would surely find it very difficult to refuse.
One party enjoying the increasingly entangled and complex state of US-Ukrainian relations is Russia.
Since becoming public on Friday, Pompeo’s comments have been cycled on state propaganda networks. Alexei Pushkov, an influential senator and former head of the parliamentary foreign affairs committee, took particular delight in noting how quickly the United States was ready to dispense of an ally.
“Pompeo asked if Americans f*****g cared about Ukraine, and basically admitted that Ukraine means nothing for US national interests,” he wrote. “It is the invented priority of a ruling elite.”
Others suggested that Moscow was more focused on Mr Pompeo’s intentions for the next stop of his itinerary.
After leaving Kiev on Friday, the secretary of state is scheduled to make a short stopover in Belarus. The trip is the highest level visit since Bill Clinton visited as president in 1994, and it comes amid growing tensions between the Russian and Belarusian leaderships. For the time being, Vladimir Putin’s attempts to bring Minsk into an ever closer union with Moscow appear to have reached a dead end. The Belarusian president is meanwhile desperately looking for new leverage in his country’s negotiations with Russia, especially for discounted energy products.
That, perhaps, is where the United States comes in – and much to the chagrin of Moscow.
“We frankly don’t f*****g care about Pompeo’s visit to Kiev,” said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat. “But we really do f*****g care about Minsk.”
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