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Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is in Kyiv as the impeachment trial against President Donald Trump has thrown Ukraine into the center of a high-profile US political scandal.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo starts a two-day trip to Ukraine on Thursday, a trip originally planned for early January but postponed due to tensions in Iraq. The capital, Kyiv, is scheduled to be the first stop on Pompeo's brief tour of former Soviet republics, followed by Belarus, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Ukraine is likely to be the most difficult and important stop.
Pompeo is the first Trump administration Cabinet member to visit Ukraine since former comedian turned politician Volodymyr Zelenskiy was elected president. It is also the first time a high-ranking US politician is visiting Ukraine after Donald Trump's July 2019 telephone conversation with Zelenskiy that led to impeachment proceedings against the US president. The visit takes place against the background of the decisive impeachment trial currently underway in the Senate.
Democrats in Congress accuse Trump of blackmailing Zelenskiy, saying he conditioned military aid to Ukraine on an investigation into a potential rival in the 2020 presidential election — former Vice President Joe Biden, along with his son, who used to do business in Ukraine. Trump denies the accusations.
Read more: Impeachment in the US: How does it work?
Zelenskiy fears backlash
In addition to the ongoing static war against pro-Russian separatists in the Donbass, Ukraine finds itself embroiled in a US political scandal for the first time in its history. Zelenskiy is trying to limit the damage, but Kyiv is already feeling the backlash. Analysts say Ukraine has become "toxic" for the US, and that contacts at various levels have become more difficult and more restrained.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that it extends beyond just government officials. Two former prosecutor generals in Ukraine, Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko, both discussed the Biden case with Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who recently collected exculpatory material for the US president in Ukraine.
Following the September 2019 resignation of Kurt Volker, the US special envoy to Ukraine, the post has remained vacant. The diplomat, who played an important role for Kyiv, particularly in peace negotiations with Russia in eastern Ukraine, was forced to return to the US in the wake of the scandal surrounding Trump's phone call with Zelenskiy.
The post of US ambassador in Kyiv has also been vacant since Trump recalled Marie Yovanovitch in May 2019. Trump criticized Yovanovitch in his call with Zelenskiy. According to US media, Giuliani reportedly initiated the early recall after telling Trump she was blocking investigations into Biden in Ukraine and maligning Trump. Yovanovitch has denied the allegations and later testified as a witness in the impeachment proceedings against the US president.
Pompeo himself was also involved in a scandal shortly before the visit to Ukraine. US public radio broadcaster NPR said that Pompeo told off its correspondent for asking about Yovanovitch in an interview. Pompeo accused the journalist of lying, called the media "unhinged" and barred another NPR reporter from accompanying him on his trip this week. Kyiv has remained silent on the incident.
In mid-January, sources in the US House of Representatives hinted Yovanovitch may have been spied on as ambassador. Ukrainian authorities accordingly launched an investigation.
US support for Ukrainian military
Pompeo is headed to Kyiv to support Ukrainian "sovereignty and territorial integrity," according to the State Department. Despite all the recent scandals, Washington's support for Kyiv has been on the rise. Ukraine's state-owned Naftogaz gas company welcomed US sanctions over the construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Naftogaz said the sanctions allowed it to open negotiations with Moscow in December on a new gas transit contract for deliveries to Europe via Ukraine.
The military aid Trump had suspended last summer is back on the table. Ukraine is hoping for more than $1 billion (€910 million) in financial support from Washington, said Volodymyr Yelchenko, Ukraine's new ambassador in Washington.
Around a third of that figure is expected to be military aid. Ukraine recently agreed to a second delivery of US Javelin anti-tank missile systems. The focus of US military support, however, is on strengthening the Ukrainian navy, Yelchenko said. Kyiv can also expect missile systems and fast boats for its coast guard.
'Surrender' to Russia?
The Minsk peace accords are bound to be one of the central issues during Pompeo's visit to Kyiv. At a summit in Paris in December 2019, Washington praised Zelenskiy's efforts to restart the faltering peace process. In the coming weeks, Ukraine will implement political agreements concerning the special status of the separatist areas around the cities of Donetsk and Luhansk, and prepare for local elections scheduled for the fall. In the past, people took to the streets to protest the agreements, calling the accord a "surrender" to Russia.