Pompeo Says Trump Backs Ukraine on Russia, but Isn’t Ready for Zelensky Visit


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday that the Trump administration was committed to supporting Ukraine in its defense against aggression by Russia, which invaded and annexed part of the country and is supporting a separatist insurgency.

“Today I’m here with a clear message: The United States sees that the Ukrainian struggle for freedom, democracy and prosperity is a valiant one,” Mr. Pompeo said at a news conference after meeting with Ukraine’s leader in Kyiv. “Our commitment to support it will not waver.”

Ukraine is a “bulwark between freedom and authoritarianism in Eastern Europe,” Mr. Pompeo added.

His visit, in which he met with President Volodymyr Zelensky, was aimed at calming unease among Ukrainian officials about the relationship between Washington and Kyiv, which has been thrust into the spotlight because of the impeachment of Mr. Trump, based on charges of abuse of power and obstruction over the president’s actions on Ukraine.

Mr. Pompeo and Mr. Zelensky met before noon in the president’s office in central Kyiv, and the Ukrainian leader said they had talked about new steps to strengthen the partnership between the two nations.

“I don’t think these friendly and warm relations have been influenced by the impeachment trial of the president,” Mr. Zelensky said at a news conference with Mr. Pompeo when asked whether Mr. Trump’s impeachment had affected ties between Kyiv and Washington.

While the two officials offered reassurances that relations were strong, Mr. Pompeo did not give Mr. Zelensky one thing he has sought since last May: an invitation to meet President Trump at the White House, which would be an important signal to Russia of American support for Ukraine. Mr. Pompeo’s message that Mr. Trump was not ready to receive Mr. Zelensky at the White House was a blow to the Ukrainian president’s national security efforts.

Evidence that Mr. Trump had earlier demanded, in return for such a visit, that Ukraine announce the start of an investigation that could benefit him politically, became an important part of the impeachment inquiry. In response to a question on Friday, Mr. Pompeo said a White House visit by Mr. Zelensky was not dependent on the kind of investigation Mr. Trump had sought.

Ukrainian officials are angry that the Americans have granted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, two visits with Mr. Trump in the White House, most recently in December.

In renewing his request for a meeting Friday, Mr. Zelensky said, “If there is anything we can negotiate and discuss, and if I can bring something back home, I am ready to go straight away.”

Mr. Pompeo was the first official from Mr. Trump’s cabinet to meet with Mr. Zelensky since the impeachment inquiry began last fall. Mr. Trump met briefly with the Ukrainian leader on Sept. 25 on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York — the day after Democrats in the House of Representatives announced the opening of the inquiry.

The Democrats’ move was prompted by a formal complaint filed by a C.I.A. whistle-blower who said that Mr. Trump had pressed Mr. Zelensky in a July 25 call for political favors at the same time he was withholding from Ukraine $391 million of military aid mandated by Congress.

The impeachment trial in the Senate began this month but appeared as of early Friday to be moving to a swift close.

The military aid from Washington, which the White House released on Sept. 11, after Mr. Trump heard about the formal whistle-blower complaint, is aimed at helping Ukrainian soldiers fight a yearslong Russian-backed insurgency in eastern Ukraine.

Ukraine and other European nations want the Trump administration to get involved in talks with leaders in Kyiv and Moscow to help settle the conflict.

Analysts say that Mr. Trump’s actions on Ukraine — which critics say centered on gaining political advantage for his re-election campaign this year — and his open admiration of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia have weakened decades of American support for Ukraine.

Mr. Trump and his aides deny that he withheld the aid for political reasons, and say they were asking that Ukraine conduct legitimate investigations into corruption. And Mr. Pompeo said on Friday that “the United States under President Trump has been the world’s fiercest defender of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

On Friday morning, as snow fell lightly in Kyiv, Mr. Pompeo met with Vadym Prystaiko, Ukraine’s foreign minister, and went to the golden-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral downtown to attend a wreath-laying ceremony for the soldiers who have died fighting in the Donbas.

More than 13,000 Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed since the war began in 2014, the same year Russia invaded and occupied the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea. The conflict has become grinding trench warfare in open fields with regular shelling.

The Ukraine trip is a fraught one for Mr. Pompeo, who arrived on Thursday night after a stop in London and plans to travel afterward to three more nations that became independent from Moscow.

Mr. Pompeo has been dogged by sharp questions over his role in the Ukraine affair and, more recently, an acid comment he made about Ukraine in a Jan. 24 conversation with a National Public Radio reporter. The reporter, Mary Louise Kelly, a veteran national security correspondent, said that after she asked about Ukraine, Mr. Pompeo shouted at her and asked her to locate Ukraine on an unmarked map. She added that, using the “f-word,” he asked, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”

Mr. Pompeo enabled Mr. Trump’s actions on Ukraine by ordering the recall of Marie L. Yovanovitch, the respected ambassador to Ukraine, last April. Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and associates with Ukraine business ties had been pressing the president hard for the ouster of the ambassador, who had been an anticorruption advocate.

Mr. Trump’s main demand of Mr. Zelensky had been that he announce investigations into Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president and a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter Biden, who had been on the board of Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian energy company.

There is no evidence that the older Mr. Biden acted inappropriately on Ukraine policy because of his son’s corporate ties.

On several occasions, Mr. Pompeo, an ardent Trump loyalist, has reiterated Mr. Trump’s conspiratorial assertions about Ukraine, the Bidens and questions of interference in the 2016 presidential election — assertions that have been discredited and have angered the Ukrainians.

“As secretary of state and C.I.A. director, Mike Pompeo had every opportunity to put his mark on Russia and Ukraine policy,” said Andrew S. Weiss, a former American official who worked on Russia and Ukraine and is now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “But at nearly every turn he focused instead on the audience of one — Donald Trump.”

“That’s why he turned a blind eye when Trump and cronies like Rudy Giuliani decided to totally dismantle the Ukraine policy framework that has been in place since 1991 and, knowingly or unknowingly, did a huge solid for the Kremlin,” he added. “Making a short pitstop in Kyiv hardly begins to undo the damage that has been wrought.”

Mr. Pompeo canceled planned trips to Ukraine twice — once in November and once at the start of January.

William B. Taylor Jr., the veteran diplomat whom Mr. Pompeo appointed to be chief of mission after Ms. Yovanovitch was forced out, wrote a Jan. 26 opinion piece for The New York Times in which he tried to address Mr. Pompeo’s angry, dismissive question to NPR about Ukraine.

“Russia is fighting a hybrid war against Ukraine, Europe and the United States,” Mr. Taylor wrote. “This war has many components: armed military aggression, energy supply, cyber attacks, disinformation and election interference. On each of these battlegrounds, Ukraine is the front line.”

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting.



Full screen © Pool photo by Kevin Lamarque

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