Pompeo Says Trump Backs Ukraine on Russia, but Isn’t Ready for Zelensky Visit
KYIV, Ukraine — 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,” he said when asked about whether Mr. Trump’s impeachment had affected ties between Kyiv and Washington.
Mr. Zelensky reiterated that he was ready to meet with Mr. Trump in an official White House visit, which would be an important signal of the status of American support for Ukraine. But Mr. Pompeo said no visit had been scheduled. “We’ll find the right time,” he said.
While the two officials offered reassurances that relations were strong, 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 strategy. Since becoming president last May, Mr. Zelensky has stressed to American officials that he wants the visit, with the intent of sending a signal to Moscow.
Evidence that Mr. Trump had demanded, in return for such a visit, that Ukraine start an investigation that would benefit him politically, became an important part of the impeachment inquiry.
“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. Zelensky said on Friday.
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. Hundreds of Russian soldiers are in the region, the Donbas, American officials say.
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.
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.
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.
Mr. Pompeo said on Friday that “the United States under President Trump has been the world’s fiercest defender of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”
Ukrainian officials are eager to have Mr. Trump publicly and strongly affirm support for Ukraine. Ukrainian officials are angry that the Americans have granted Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey V. Lavrov, two visits with Mr. Trump in White House, most recently in December.
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.
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 reportedly 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 in a rant full of obscenities and asked her to locate Ukraine on an unmarked map that his aides pulled out. She added that, using the “f-word,” he asked, “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”
Mr. Pompeo put out an extraordinary statement the next day that denounced the news media as “unhinged.” He also banned NPR from joining the pool of reporters on his current trip. His actions have been widely criticized by press freedom advocates and foreign policy experts.
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.
In May, after Ms. Yovanovitch moved back to Washington, Mr. Pompeo asked a former ambassador to Ukraine and veteran diplomat, William B. Taylor Jr., to be chief of mission until a new ambassador was appointed. Mr. Taylor, along with Ms. Yovanovitch and other diplomats, defied administration orders not to testify in the impeachment inquiry; Mr. Taylor spoke of how he gradually discovered Mr. Trump’s Ukraine plans over the summer, which administration critics say undermined American support of Ukraine by withholding aid.
Mr. Trump’s main demand of Mr. Zelensky was 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.