Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spent January 31 in Kyiv underscoring American support for Ukraine, including in its struggle against Russian aggression. While Pompeo brought no major deliverables, just showing up proved enough for the Ukrainians.
The U.S. government should now follow up with steps to strengthen the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, which has been stressed by President Donald Trump’s bid to drag Ukraine’s leadership into U.S. politics.
A rough patch for U.S.-Ukraine relations
2019 was not the best year for U.S.-Ukraine relations. President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, elected in April, found himself pressured to launch an investigation into a long-discredited corruption claim about former Vice President Joe Biden and Biden’s son, Hunter, in order to benefit Trump’s reelection bid. In the process, the White House withheld an Oval Office visit from Zelenskiy and, for a time, congressionally-approved U.S. military assistance.
Zelenskiy managed to walk a narrow path carefully. He did not contradict Trump by saying there was pressure. Why would he? He and Ukraine had nothing to gain by alienating the American president. At the same time, authorities in Kyiv did not announce Trump’s desired investigation. Doing so would have unraveled the bipartisan support that Ukraine has enjoyed in Congress for nearly three decades.
Against this backdrop, the Ukrainians warmly welcomed the secretary of state’s visit. Pompeo, who had canceled planned visits in November and earlier in January, became the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Kyiv in two-and-a-half years (Vice President Mike Pence reportedly was instructed by Trump not to attend Zelenskiy’s inauguration last May).
Kyiv was so eager to host Pompeo that Ukrainian officials overlooked the secretary’s faux pas a week before his arrival. In an interview with National Public Radio’s Mary Louise Kelly, Pompeo took umbrage when she raised Ukraine and questioned the secretary’s failure to speak up for U.S. officials called to testify in Trump’s impeachment hearings. An angry Pompeo asked: “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
The right messages
Pompeo’s visit aimed to show Ukrainians — and Moscow — that Americans do care. As Kyiv think-tanker Alyona Hetmanchuk correctly predicted: “Pompeo will pretend that he didn’t say anything, and his Ukrainian counterparts will pretend that they didn’t hear anything.”
Pompeo had meetings with Zelenskiy, Foreign Minister Vadim Prystaiko, and Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk. The secretary had no major new announcements, but his public remarks following his meeting with Zelenskiy struck the right notes from the Ukrainian perspective:
- “The United States sees that the Ukrainian struggle for freedom, democracy, and prosperity is a valiant one. Our commitment to support it will not waver.”
- “We have maintained support for Ukraine’s efforts to join NATO and move closer to the European Union.”
- “In July of 2018, we released the Crimea Declaration, which clearly stated that Crimea is part of Ukraine and the United States will never recognize Russia’s attempts to annex it. We will never accept anything less than the full restoration of Ukraine’s control over its sovereign territory.”
In addition to meetings with Ukrainian officials, Pompeo laid a wreath in honor of Ukrainian soldiers who have died fighting Russian and Russian proxy forces the past six years in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbas. He later visited wounded soldiers.
The secretary’s words, wreath-laying, and hospital visit made the day a good one for Ukrainians anxious for reaffirmation of U.S. support. The only discordant note: The secretary ducked a question as to when Zelenskiy could visit Washington. Zelenskiy, who received an invitation from Trump last May, but no specific date, made clear his readiness to travel.
Pompeo’s visit went some way to reassure Ukrainians. Never fully confident in Trump’s view of their country, they became more nervous about the depth and resilience of American support last fall as the impeachment drama played out in Washington. The U.S. government and Pompeo should follow up on his visit with steps to bolster the relationship and Ukraine’s confidence.
First, the president should quickly nominate an ambassador to Ukraine. Since Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s unjust early recall last spring, the U.S. mission in Kyiv has been led by chargés d’affaires. The current chargé is a very able and experienced career Foreign Service officer, but Ukrainians can be forgiven for thinking that the absence of a confirmed ambassador means that the United States does not care as much as it should.
Interestingly, during his February 1 visit to Belarus, Pompeo expressed hope that there would soon be an American ambassador in Minsk. Ukraine matters much more to U.S. policy interests than does Belarus. Pompeo should propose a name for Kyiv to the White House and urge the president to make a rapid decision.
Second, the secretary should task Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun, who took up his office in early January, to devote some of his time to Russia and Ukraine. Deputy secretaries at the State Department typically have one or two regional questions in their direct portfolio. Biegun knows the post-Soviet region well. He spent time in Moscow during the 1990s. He is familiar with the Russia-Ukraine conflict, having taken part in a Track II effort to promote a settlement.
The State Department has indicated that it does not intend to replace Ambassador Kurt Volker, who resigned in September from his position as special envoy for Ukraine negotiations. The department apparently plans to have the slack taken up by diplomats such as Acting Assistant Secretary Phil Reeker, who has deep European experience, and Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, who knows Ukraine as well as anyone at State. Adding Biegun to the mix would signal heightened U.S. interest in facilitating an end to the Russia-Ukraine conflict and ensure that Ukraine gets appropriate attention from the highest levels of the State Department.
Third, the secretary should ask Trump to give Zelenskiy a specific date to come to Washington. During his time in Kyiv, Pompeo denied that there were conditions for a visit — a denial that flies in the face of testimony to Congress by current and former U.S. officials. However, what better way to make the case than by extending an invitation for Zelenskiy to visit now?
Pompeo’s visit helped put U.S.-Ukraine relations on a better track. When he returns to Washington, he should take the above actions to further bolster that relationship.