Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo on Friday sought to set aside the awkwardness of the U.S. political drama involving Ukraine by reassuring the nation that American support for its developing democracy was unwavering.
Pompeo’s trip to Kyiv came as the impeachment trial of President Trump in Washington appeared to near its climax. Pompeo is the highest ranking U.S. official to travel to Kyiv since the impeachment scandal broke six months ago.
Pompeo referred to the “brave and valiant” Ukrainian soldiers who have lost their lives in the east of the country, where Kyiv’s forces are battling Russian-backed separatist fighters in the industrial regions known as the Donbas. More than 14,000 people have been killed in the war, now in its sixth year, he said.
“Today I’m here with a clear message: The U.S. sees that the Ukrainian struggle for freedom for democracy and prosperity is a valiant one,” Pompeo said as he and President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed about 100 Ukrainian and international journalists crowded into a formal reception hall in the presidential administration building in the center of the capital.
Pompeo did not extend an invitation to Zelensky to visit the White House, one of the carrots that Trump is accused of withholding, along with crucial security aid, in exchange for an official Ukrainian investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.
“The meeting was very focused on investment and infrastructure. There was no talk of impeachment or any investigations,” the State Department said in a statement released shortly after Pompeo’s meeting with Zelensky.
There was nervous anticipation in Kyiv before Pompeo’s arrival, and Zelensky’s administration did not release much information about the meeting’s agenda. Many analysts viewed the Ukrainian government’s silence ahead of Pompeo’s visit as a sign that Kyiv was hoping to stay out of the American political drama.
Ukrainians learned with the rest of the world early this fall that Trump had withheld $391 million in foreign aid, which Kyiv depends on to fight Moscow’s militants in the east. The aid was eventually released, but Ukraine found itself in the center of an American crisis that threatened to overshadow the country’s need for international support.
In early January, a Ukrainian International Airlines passenger jet was shot down in Iran after taking off from the Tehran airport, killing all 176 passengers and crew aboard. Iranian officials later admitted that they had shot down the plane because they mistook it as an U.S. assault on an Iranian military base.
Last week, Pompeo created a stir when he asked an NPR journalist if Americans really cared about Ukraine, according to the reporter. The heated exchange, which involved a four-letter expletive, went public, and raised questions about the top U.S. diplomat’s views on what has been a strategic relationship since the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991.
Pompeo has since said that Ukraine is important to the United States and reiterated that, saying “American commitment to support Ukraine will not waver.”
Zelensky has tried to distance himself from the American scandals. On a trip to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in October, he met briefly with Trump and said at a news conference that he had not felt pressure from the U.S. president to open a corruption probe into Biden, Trump’s potential rival in the 2020 election.
The meeting between Pompeo and Zelensky was stiff but cordial as the two leaders sought to move past the political drama and get relations between the countries back on track.
Zelensky said in opening statements that he would like to see the U.S. “more actively involved in the peace process in eastern Ukraine and the de-occupation of Crimea.”
The Ukrainian president won in a landslide election with 73% of the vote in April. His campaign promised to fight corruption and end the war in the east.
Zelensky has made small strides in the peace process by negotiating prisoner exchanges with Russia and meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He emphasized on Friday the importance of U.S. support for Ukraine’s fight against Moscow’s incursions into its territories, including Crimea. Russia annexed Crimea in May 2014.
Pompeo said that under Trump, the U.S. has been the “world’s fiercest defender of Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
Pompeo said the U.S. remained committed to its declaration that Crimea was part of Ukraine and the U.S. would never recognize Moscow’s illegal attempts to annex it.
Pompeo also met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko and Defense Minister Andriy Zahorodnyuk on Friday. He will travel to Minsk, Belarus, on Saturday before winding up his trip with stops in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan early next week.
When asked by a Ukrainian journalist if he thought Trump’s impeachment had soured relations between Kyiv and Washington, Zelensky smirked, rocked back on his heels and said he had anticipated such a question.
“Frankly speaking, I think the opposite. We have very good relations. The United States supports Ukraine, the defense of our territorial integrity, and not only in words,” he said.
Ukraine has asked U.S. companies to participate in natural gas and oil extraction in the country and invited them to bid for the development of the Black Sea shelf, the Ukrainian president said.
“This is already a new step and a new feeling,” in bilateral relations, Zelensky said.
Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Washington contributed to this report.