It seems Ukraine can’t catch a break from getting dragged into U.S. political drama.
In the fall, the quid pro quo scandal emerged and gave Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, an unwanted leading role in what is now the impeachment trial of President Trump.
Then in early January, Iran shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger jet flying out of Tehran that it mistook as a potential American attack on one of its military bases after it had fired missiles at military bases in Iraq to retaliate for the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani.
All 176 passengers and crew aboard were killed. Eleven Ukrainians, including nine crew members, were among the dead.
Last week, Ukrainians learned of a conversation between Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and an NPR reporter, in which the American diplomat reportedly used a profanity while asking dismissively whether the reporter thought Americans really cared about Ukraine. (He later said he does think Americans should care.)
On Thursday, Pompeo is scheduled to arrive in Kyiv for a two-day visit that is part of a broader trip through four countries that were part of the former Soviet Union. He is the highest-level U.S. official to travel to Ukraine since the start of the impeachment proceedings.
In preparation, Ukrainians seem to be patiently accepting that they must grin and bear it: deal with their very difficult ally, for better or worse.
“What matters to Ukrainians is the bottom line, whether the U.S. is behind Ukraine,” said Olena Tregub, the secretary general of NAKO, a Ukrainian watchdog organization focused on corruption in the security sector.
“Ukrainians are more and more trying to distance themselves from whatever internal struggles are happening in Washington,” she said. Ukraine needs U.S. support, “but we don’t want to be part of this internal game in America.”
Ukraine has received bipartisan support from the U.S. for nearly 30 years as the former Soviet republic made the difficult transition to independence from Moscow rule. After the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, Democrats and Republicans have approved billions of dollars to fund Ukraine’s democratic reforms.
Since 2014, the U.S. has provided security assistance to Ukraine as Kyiv’s government forces fight Russian-backed separatist militias in its eastern territories.
It was Trump’s decision to hold up nearly $400 million in aid allegedly to pressure Ukraine into digging up dirt on Trump’s political rivals that lies at the heart of the impeachment case.
Despite trying to keep out of internal U.S. political turmoil, there have been rippling effects on Ukraine’s reform process and much-needed support system with the U.S., Tregub said.
“One U.S. ambassador has been dismissed, and then there was a charges d’affaires, and there is still no U.S. ambassador,” Tregub said, referring to Trump’s abrupt dismissal of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was the subject of a smear campaign orchestrated by the president’s allies. Ukraine’s leading anti-corruption activists considered Yovanovitch a close partner.
A veteran foreign service officer, William Taylor, was brought out of retirement to replace Yovanovitch as the U.S. charges d’affaires in Ukraine for a six-month stint that ended on Jan. 2. The No. 2 at the embassy, Kristina Kvien, has stepped in as temporary charges while Ukraine waits for Trump’s next ambassadorial appointment in Kyiv.
Pompeo has come under withering criticism for failing to publicly defend Yovanovitch. Part of the impeachment scandal includes testimony that Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, was running a shadow diplomacy that circumvented the professionals at the embassy and in Washington and was aimed at helping Trump’s reelection.
Pompeo, who has been dismissive of the impeachment and insisted he remained in charge of Ukraine policy ever since becoming secretary 20 months ago, plans to meet with Zelensky and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, as well as a small group of Ukrainian civil society leaders in a separate venue.
Kyiv is hoping to get confirmation from Pompeo that the U.S. is still backing Ukraine in its military conflict against Russia in the east. That war, now in its sixth year, has claimed more than 13,000 lives and displaced 2 million people.
In an opinion piece this week, Taylor, the former top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, responded to Pompeo’s reported question of whether Americans cared about Ukraine by arguing that supporting Kyiv’s fight against Russian-backed separatists was in the best interests of the United States.
“Ukraine is defending itself and the West against Russian attack. If Ukraine succeeds, we succeed. The relationship between the United States and Ukraine is key to our national security, and Americans should care about Ukraine,” Taylor wrote.
Pompeo canceled a trip to Ukraine planned for early January amid intensifying tensions with Iran that culminated in the killing of Suleimani in a U.S. drone strike in Baghdad.
Pompeo’s visit this week comes as the Senate debates whether it will allow former national security advisor John Bolton to testify in Trump’s impeachment trial. Bolton has written in an upcoming book that he overheard Trump directly tying the release of the security aid to an announcement by Zelensky that he would launch an investigation into a key Trump political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Zelensky and the Ukrainian government have not released any public statements about their expectations or agenda for Pompeo’s visit, most likely to avoid creating any more turbulence between Kyiv and Washington.
“Zelensky has done a very decent job maneuvering in a difficult balancing act, trying to not get involved with the American political situation,” said Peter Zalmayev, the director of the Eurasia Democracy Initiative, a think tank in Kyiv.
But the messages coming out from Washington about Ukraine are just confusing, said Ivan Yakovina, a foreign policy columnist for NV, Ukraine’s leading weekly current affairs magazine.
“Nobody really understands who represents America these days. Is Bolton America? Or is Trump America? Or is it Pompeo?” Yakovina said. “Even the Republican establishment seems to want one thing, while Trump seems to want something else.”
Perhaps Pompeo is committing to this trip to make things right, Tregub said.
“Maybe he understands that this country, at this critical moment when we are still fighting Russia and also trying to fight corruption as much as we can, needs a strong partner,” Tregub said.
Just by making this visit, she said, Pompeo is showing that Ukraine does matter.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.