KYIV—When U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives here in Ukraine on Friday, he should feel right at home. Never mind his feud with National Public Radio in Washington, verbally abusing one of its correspondents and asking her, among several expletives, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”—meaning they do not.
He will be welcomed in Kyiv because this country desperately needs American aid in a war with Russian-backed separatists that has gone on for almost six years. And many Ukrainians believe Pompeo’s mission will be to squeeze a new declaration out of President Volodymyr Zelensky to the effect that he never felt any pressure from President Trump’s alleged abuse of power last summer, when aid to Ukraine was withheld while Trump and his associates pushed for an investigation of Joe Biden and his son.
The visit comes the same week that Senate Republicans are wrapping up their defense of Trump in his impeachment trial. Such a declaration by Zelensky can be used to bolster Trump’s defense in the court of public opinion.
Pompeo also will find a warm reception from a segment of society here that believes reporters asking tough questions should be pressured, even prosecuted, for doing their jobs. (Pompeo’s flap with NPR escalated Monday when he barred another of its correspondents from the press entourage that will travel to Ukraine with him.)
All this has come to a head because of the way U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was forced out of her post last year, and the repercussions that followed her unimpeachable testimony before the House of Representatives—which contributed to Trump’s impeachment.
Yovanovitch was removed precipitously last spring because she was portrayed by Trump cronies as an obstacle to their push for an investigation of the Ukraine business ties of Hunter Biden and the former vice president, who was seen as Trump’s leading political rival.
Trump’s withholding of aid to Ukraine while he and his minions pressed for a public announcement of such an investigation—which was never made—is at the heart of the impeachment case against him for abuse of power.
Pompeo, who has bent over backward to defend Trump, has said and done nothing publicly to defend Yovanovitch. And the questions posed by NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly that so infuriated Pompeo last week were, precisely, about that failure to stand up for a distinguished State Department professional.
Yovanovitch has been a U.S. Foreign Service officer for more than 30 years. Fluent in Russian, she has dealt mainly with former parts of the Soviet Union, and she left a strong positive impression on Ukraine’s civic activists, particularly those fighting corruption.
Last spring, Yovanovitch helped to launch Ukraine’s High Anti-Corruption Court and she was well-known for encouraging many major corruption cases. But while Yovanovitch worked on programs supporting Ukraine’s reforms, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani, his Ukrainian associate Lev Parnas, Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, and others conspired against her.
As she testified at the House impeachment hearings, “after being asked by the department in early March to extend my tour, to stay on an extra year until 2020, in late April I was then abruptly asked to come back to Washington from Ukraine on the next plane.”
Just before that, ironically, Yovanovitch had received Ukraine’s leading corruption fighters at her residence in Kyiv to give a posthumous award to the father of Kateryna Handziuk, a critic of the police who died after acid was poured on her.
“The ambassador told us something important and inspiring that night,” Daria Kaleniuk, director of Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, told The Daily Beast this week. “She said that ‘courage is contagious.’ I totally agree.”
Yet even among Ukraine’s bravest civil groups there is no strong voice advocating publicly for Yovanovitch or speaking against Trump’s dubious helpers working in Ukraine.
After revelations in documents released by House Democrats this month suggesting Trump partisans may have put Yovanovitch under surveillance, the Interior Ministry of Ukraine announced an investigation of everybody involved.
“Any illegal surveillance of a diplomat breaks the law in Ukraine and is punished with criminal liability,” Deputy Minister of Interior Affairs Anton Herashchenko told The Daily Beast at the time. “We have sent a request to the FBI for additional data. I don’t have information about the response.”
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said that starting from Jan. 20, there would be an investigation conducted by a joint group formed with members of the Diplomatic Security Service at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine.
But the announcement hung in the air, a week passed by, and there was no sign indicating such a group existed.
Independent observers doubt a Ukrainian police investigation, if it happens, will bring any results. “As we see from the released documents, Interior Minister Avakov had provided bodyguards for Rudy Giuliani’s aide, Lev Parnas,” said Kaleniuk.
“I would be surprised to see a fair investigation of this gang’s surveillance,” Kaleniuk said. “Both government officials and ordinary people are afraid of criticizing Trump. What if he wins and stays for the next term? Ukraine is not going to survive long without the United States. There is a war in our country.”
Trump’s supporters in Ukraine, meanwhile, are putting pressure on independent journalists investigating Ukraine’s involvement in the U.S. impeachment scandal.
Oleksandr Dubinsky, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, accused Slidstvo.Info, a group funded by European grants, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, and George Soros' foundations, of “investigating” U.S. citizens.
Dubinsky is a member of ruling Servant of the People party. He is famous in Kyiv as one of Giuliani’s helpers. At a recent press conference, he showed the request he had received from Slidstvo.Info asking him to provide his email correspondence with high-profile Americans, recordings of his phone conversations, as well as Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, and Telegram text messages, transcripts of meetings, names of participants, and other documents from the last four years. Among those named: Pompeo, Giuliani, Yovanovitch, Rep. Adam Schiff, and Attorney General William Barr.
“So they requested surveillance and access to the information which is protected by law,” Dubinsky declared, implying that the request itself was somehow illicit.
Slidstvo.Info co-founder Anna Babinets noted that when journalists request such information they are just doing their job. “We asked him about his correspondence with Giuliani and many other officials. We have sent similar requests to at least 13 other people as part of our reporting on Ukrainian officials’ involvement in this case. If Dubinsky followed the impeachment hearings, he would have known that such data was often public,” Babinets said.
“Dubinsky accuses us of espionage, though we have officially and openly requested information and it was up to Dubinsky to reject our request or cooperate with us,” Babinets said. “Now we are very worried that thanks to Dubinsky, we might be blamed for surveillance on Yovanovitch, which would mean police raids at our office, confiscation of computers, or worse.”
International news analyst Ivan Yakovina told The Daily Beast on Monday that “I believe Pompeo is coming to make President Zelensky swear on camera that there was no pressure on him from Trump, especially now, when there is pressure growing on Trump’s former adviser John Bolton to testify” in the impeachment trial.
Brian Bonner, the editor in chief of the Kyiv Post, agrees that there is no vocal advocate in Ukraine for the Democrats’ arguments in the impeachment case. “There is enough evidence, but Zelensky will never say or do anything to upset Trump, Ukraine will stick to ‘bipartisan support,’” meaning a fear of offending either side. And under the circumstances, as Pompeo certainly knows, that plays to Trump’s advantage.
—Christopher Dickey also contributed reporting to this story.