KYIV—Many Ukrainians—especially those in the government— were nervous on Thursday as they awaited the arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the first high-ranking U.S. government official to visit since the infamous phone conversation last July between Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Donald Trump.
As the impeachment storm that grew out of that phone call continues to swirl around Trump, Kyiv fears that Ukraine will be dragged even deeper into the maelstrom, weakening its defenses against Russia, and perhaps undermining the fight against pervasive corruption.
While on the surface, official Washington policy is supportive of Ukraine in both those efforts, Trump has tried to equate the struggle against corruption with his explicit desire, expressed in that July 25 phone call (PDF), to have investigations focus attention on his political rival Joe Biden and various conspiracy theories pushed by Russian propaganda. As he was promoting that narrow program, he also withheld vitally needed military aid from Ukraine.
Led by Trump’s personal lawyer, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, several Ukrainians out to curry favor with the U.S. president and undermine their own rivals here helped promote Trump’s pet theories. They also worked successfully to get veteran U.S. Amb. Marie Yovanovitch removed from her post and may have tried to put her under surveillance.
So perhaps it’s not surprising that as Pompeo’s arrival was awaited, some of the messaging coming out of Kyiv sounded confusing.
When the issue of illegal surveillance targeting Yovanovitch first surfaced earlier this month, Ukraine’s interior minister announced there would be a joint investigation by Ukrainian investigators and the U.S. Diplomatic Security Service at the embassy here. But on Thursday morning, Gen. Ruslan Ryaboshapka, Ukraine's prosecutor general, said there is no joint group with the U.S. embassy, and probably there never will be.
Ryaboshapka told Ukrainian Interfax news agency that U.S. security specialists are in Ukraine to investigate the surveillance, but the American side “has no intention” of participating in a joint effort.
Why make such an announcement on the day Pompeo arrives?
“This message is confusing, it might mean only one thing: Ryaboshapka, who is a Zelensky appointee, intends to show Washington that Ukraine is doing its best to distance itself from the impeachment process,” says Taras Semenyuk of the KyivStratPro consultancy firm. “Zelensky and his conversation with Trump was the trigger of the entire impeachment process, then we heard about the surveillance over U.S. Ambassador Yovanovitch on the territory of Ukraine, so currently our leadership are doing their best to stay away from the U.S. internal political tensions.”
Pompeo, speaking to reporters en route to his previous stop in London, sidestepped the problematic Trump demand that Ukraine specifically investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
“I don’t want to talk about particular individuals,” Pompeo said. “It’s not worth it. It’s a long list in Ukraine of corrupt individuals and a long history there. And President Zelensky has told us he’s committed to it. The actions he’s taken so far demonstrate that, and I look forward to having a conversation about that with him as well.”
Pompeo suggested Ukraine corruption has been a big issue for him in his role as secretary of state and, before that, as CIA director, “developing the facts and data” about corruption in Ukraine’s government and private sector.
But Ukrainians who knew Yovanovitch as a dedicated corruption fighter saw her removal as a bad sign, and her testimony at the House impeachment hearings, along with that of several other top U.S. government experts on Ukraine, did nothing to reassure them.
So it is now more important for Kyiv than ever to see that Washington is actually serious about supporting Ukraine’s vital reforms.
According to the U.S. State Department’s announcement, Pompeo is planning to demonstrate that the U.S. government cares about peace in Ukraine and “highlight U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” at his meetings with Zelensky as well as with the foreign minister and defense minister.
Pompeo is also planning to lay flowers at the memorial to thousands of Ukrainian soldiers killed in the now almost six-year war with pro-Russian forces in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine. The memorial, just outside the gold-domed St. Michael Monastery in the heart of Kyiv, is a long wall with thousands of young faces: Ukrainian men and women killed in eastern Ukraine. Pompeo will also meet with religious, civic society, and business leaders.
Novoye Vremya magazine, one of the news outlets closely covering Washington’s impeachment scandals, referred to the visit as the Day of Pompeo. “The Secretary of State is coming to make sure there will be no bad surprises from Zelensky during Trump’s trial at the Senate,” Novoye Vremya political observer, Ivan Yakovina, told The Daily Beast. “If we hear today or tomorrow that Ukraine is going to get more military aid, that would mean that Pompeo and Zelensky have come to a mutual agreement.”
Olena Trigub, leader of the independent Defense Anti-Corruption Committee, NAKO, says she looks forward to passing an important message to Washington at the meeting with the Pompeo and Ukrainian civic society leaders.
“We don’t dismiss the fact that there is corruption in Ukraine but in spite of the impeachment scandal involving some Ukrainian citizens, we believe that the U.S. government should recognize and support Ukrainian anti-corruption efforts,” Trigub told The Daily Beast.
NAKO has focused particularly on the Ukraine Defense Ministry’s procurement system, and concludes that out of some $1 billion allocated to procurements, up to 40 percent has been lost to corruption and inefficiency.
“The average percentage we hear most often is 30 percent,” Trigub said. “The Ukrainian government is now demonstrating the political will to clean up the defense sector—currently, two new bills are being developed on defense procurement and on state secrecy.”
Ukraine’s civic leaders hope Washington will demonstrate strong support for what they see as Zelensky’s game-changing reforms in the defense sector.
“Despite the political will, we see that reformers in the government and in civil society lack the capacity and the support of Ukraine's international partners, such as the USA. It is needed badly at this important time.”