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Taking It In Stride, Again: As Pompeo Visits, Ukraine Seems Set To Shrug Off Controversy

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's trip will be the highest-level visit in 2 1/2 years.

KYIV -- Mike Pompeo's clash with a reporter in Washington, which the journalist said set off a foul-mouthed tirade in which he questioned whether Americans care about Ukraine, caused an uproar in his home country.

But when the U.S. secretary of state arrives in Kyiv on January 30 for the highest-level visit in 2 1/2 years, it seems likely to cause less of a stir -- and he may be greeted as though nothing was ever said at all.

"Pompeo will pretend that he didn't say anything and his Ukrainian counterparts will pretend that they didn't hear anything," said Alyona Hetmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center, a Kyiv think tank.

Why? Because of Ukraine's reliance on U.S. support, experts say.

The stakes are simply too high, they suggest, for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and his government to spend much time worrying about the incident -- despite the questions some in Kyiv say it raises about the strength of the U.S. commitment to Ukraine.

Instead, they are likely to focus on the expressions of solidarity and support that Pompeo is expected to bring for Ukraine, which is in the sixth year of a war with Russia-backed separatists who seized parts of two eastern regions after Moscow occupied and annexed Crimea in 2014.

Pompeo, who is expected to meet with Zelenskiy and other officials on January 31, will "highlight U.S. support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity," the State Department said in a statement ahead of his visit, the second stop on a trip also taking him to Britain, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan.

Elected nine months ago, Zelenskiy is already accustomed to taking U.S. developments that involve Ukraine in stride. About two months after he was sworn in, he had a telephone conversation with President Donald Trump that is a central focus of the impeachment trial now under way in Washington.

Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Donald Trump meet in New York on September 25, 2019.
Volodymyr Zelensky (left) and Donald Trump meet in New York on September 25, 2019.

The first of two articles of impeachment being addressed in the U.S. Senate trial accuses Trump of abuse of power, arguing that the Republican president used the authority of his office to solicit Ukraine to announce investigations into his political rivals -- chiefly former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a front-runner for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in the November 2020 presidential election.

Among the evidence cited by Democrats seeking Trump's conviction and removal from office in the trial -- which seems almost certain to end in his acquittal by the Republican-controlled Senate -- is his request in the phone call that Zelenskiy "do us a favor" and pursue probes that could bring him personal political benefit by undermining Biden and the Democrats more broadly. Trump says he has done nothing wrong.

'Don't Rock The Boat'

Zelenskiy, a comedian and political novice who was elected in a landslide by voters weary of war and corruption, has weathered the storm of attention thrust upon him and his country by the U.S. political turmoil with little direct damage to his popularity. He wants to keep it that way.

Lyubov Tsybulska, a political analyst at Ukraine Crisis Media Center, a communications group promoting Ukraine internationally, said that Pompeo's reported comment about whether Americans care about Ukraine was "very discouraging for Ukrainian civil society because America has been considered a reliable and very important ally."

Just days after the State Department announced Pompeo's visit, he was accused of shouting at National Public Radio (NPR) reporter Mary Louise Kelly, "Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?" after she questioned him about the country and his treatment of former U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovich, who was abruptly removed in April.

Like Hetmanchuk, however, Tsybulska said she expected both Zelenskiy and Pompeo to hide any awkwardness behind wide smiles and handshakes when they meet -- behavior in line with how Kyiv has reacted to Trump's impeachment and the surrounding debate.

Throughout the process, Ukrainian officials have been "very careful and self-controlled," Tsybulska said. "I don't expect any changes in their behavior."

Zelenskiy and his foreign minister, Vadym Prystayko, who will also meet with Pompeo, have said little more than they have felt "no pressure" from the Trump administration.

Their near-silence on the subject has raised eyebrows, but there is good reason for keeping quiet, experts say: Put simply, Ukraine can't afford to anger Washington. "They are aware of [Ukraine's] dependence on American aid," said Ihar Tyshkevich, an analyst at the Ukrainian Institute for the Future.

The country relies heavily on U.S. financial assistance to carry out crucial economic and judicial reforms, and counts on diplomatic and military support from Washington as it fights the Russia-backed separatists in the region known as the Donbas, where more than 13,000 people have been killed since the conflict broke out in April 2014.

Since then, the United States has provided more than $3 billion in assistance to Ukraine, including $1.5 billion in security aid with everything from medical kits to Humvees, counterbattery radar systems and Javelin anti-tank missiles.

A Ukrainian soldier rides with a Javelin anti-tank missile as he takes part in a rehearsal of a military parade in Kyiv in August 2018.
A Ukrainian soldier rides with a Javelin anti-tank missile as he takes part in a rehearsal of a military parade in Kyiv in August 2018.

Trump froze nearly $391 million of such aid to Ukraine just before his July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy. He later released it, but the decision to withhold it -- which the Government Accountability Office, a nonpartisan U.S. watchdog, said was illegal -- is part of the impeachment case.

Despite the controversy surrounding Pompeo's reported outburst, Ukraine's Foreign Ministry said in a statement to RFE/RL, "a clear message that we hear from Washington is that the U.S. policy regarding Ukraine remains unchanged."

"We highly appreciate Secretary Pompeo's personal leadership in maintaining a firm U.S. policy of support towards Ukraine," the ministry said. "We have enjoyed this support for years, and hope it will only grow in the future."

Accentuate The Positive

Volodymyr Fesenko, a political analyst at the Kyiv-based Penta Center, said that it is just not worth it for Zelenskiy to dwell on Pompeo's reported remarks. "We shouldn't quarrel with senior U.S. officials, especially over such a minor incident," and risk jeopardizing much-needed support, Fesenko said.

Officials and others in Ukraine, he said, "are much more concerned about the statements of Trump," who has made remarks that critics say show he favors Moscow and has little sympathy for Kyiv.

Trump denies this and contends his administration has been supportive of Ukraine and tough on Russia, citing the military aid for the former and persistent sanctions against Moscow for the latter.

But after Pompeo's reported remark and previous comments purportedly made by Trump -- who former special envoy Kurt Volker said described Ukraine as "a terrible place," where "they're all corrupt, they're terrible people" -- the top U.S. diplomat's visit marks an important chance for the United States to signal that Ukraine is indeed an important and strategic partner.

Both Volker and William Taylor, the former U.S. charge d'affaires in Ukraine, wrote opinion articles in support of a strong alliance between Kyiv and Washington in the run-up to Pompeo's visit.

While Taylor made a case for Ukraine's importance to the United States, directly answering the question that Pompeo reportedly raised with the NPR reporter, Volker laid out several things he hoped the secretary of state would accomplish in Kyiv.

Pompeo will be the most senior U.S. official to visit Ukraine since the start of the impeachment process and the first secretary of state to visit since Rex Tillerson did so in July 2017.

In addition to Zelenskiy and Prystayko, Pompeo is scheduled to meet Defense Minister Andriy Zahorodnyuk and the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epiphaniy, as well as members of civil society and the business community.

He will also visit at the U.S. Embassy, where State Department investigators reportedly interviewed diplomats and local staff last week about the possible surveillance by Trump allies of former Ambassador Yovanovitch.

Svyatoslav Yurash, a lawmaker in Zelenskiy's party and a member of the parliament's Foreign Policy Committee, told RFE/RL that meetings with Pompeo would focus solely on strengthening the countries' relationship and suggested they would steer clear of controversial remarks and discussions surrounding the impeachment process.

"America's scandalous business is its scandalous business and we don't want to get involved in that," he said.