KYIV — US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Ukraine next week, just as the Senate's impeachment trial of Donald Trump on charges he sought to pressure Ukraine's government into investigating Joe Biden heats up.
Three diplomatic sources with knowledge of Pompeo’s schedule told BuzzFeed News he will visit Kyiv next Friday, Jan. 31.
His visit will include a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whose phone call with Trump is at the heart of the impeachment trial. Pompeo's trip will mark the first time a member of Trump's cabinet has met Zelensky since the impeachment saga began last September, when news broke that Trump had withheld military aid and a White House visit in order to pressure Zelensky to publicly announce investigations into former vice president Biden, and his son, Hunter.
Ukraine’s leaders will be pleased with the visit, which is meant to show that the US still stands by the country’s side as it continues to fight a war against an aggressive Russia in its east and against corrupt oligarchs in its capital.
The three diplomatic sources described Pompeo’s upcoming visit as substantive and not simply a drop-in. Pompeo, the sources said, is expected to also meet with top government officials, and to pay his respects to Ukraine’s fallen soldiers and revolutionaries at memorials in the capital.
However, some observers say the visit shows where Ukraine stands among the Trump administration’s priorities. “The timing of Pompeo’s visit is in keeping with the White House’s past behavior towards Kyiv, which has made it clear that it’s far down its list of priorities,” said Katharine Quinn-Judge, a Ukraine analyst for Crisis Group.
Ivan Yakovina, a foreign policy columnist for Ukraine's Novoye Vremya newsmagazine, said one reason for Pompeo’s trip could be to make sure that “no bad surprises would come from Kyiv during the Trump Senate trial.”
“I mean no word-to-word transcripts of the relevant phone calls or other documents will leak,” he said. “If I were him I would assure the Ukrainians that they will be rewarded if nothing unexpected happens during the trial. And punished if comrade Trump’s enemies will get some sort of help or comfort from Kyiv.”
The trip could also shine a critical light on Pompeo’s decision to recall former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, and the slow response to the possible surveillance of her by allies of President Trump. It could also expose tensions between Pompeo and career US foreign service officers stationed in Kyiv, who’ve expressed their frustration with the secretary of state privately to BuzzFeed News in recent weeks.
Several current and former embassy officials said they didn’t want Pompeo to visit the embassy when he had scheduled his previously planned visit, which was canceled because of heightened US–Iran tensions. Media reports at the time quoted State Department officials as saying that Pompeo wanted to avoid the embassy altogether and would hold meetings in his hotel.
Some of those embassy officials described to BuzzFeed News a feeling of being demoralized, and said they have been ordered to keep a low profile amid the impeachment saga. The embassy is currently led on an acting basis by charge d’affaires Kristina Kvien, who took the lead after Bill Taylor vacated his temporary position on Jan. 2 — the day before Pompeo was first scheduled to visit Kyiv.
Pompeo is expected to stay one night in Kyiv before departing to Minsk, Belarus, the three diplomatic sources said. Russia’s TASS news agency, citing the Belarusian Foreign Ministry, also reported Wednesday that Pompeo plans to visit Minsk on Feb. 1, as did Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s Belarusian service. The timing of the Minsk visit is interesting, since it comes as Trump is reportedly considering whether to impose travel restrictions on Belarusians.
The US Embassy in Kyiv declined to comment on travel plans that haven’t been officially announced. The State Department didn’t respond to emailed requests for comment. Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry wouldn’t confirm Pompeo’s visit, saying “the prerogative of officially announcing visits to Ukraine by foreign ministers of other states usually belongs to their corresponding governments.” The ministry pointed BuzzFeed News to a readout of a Jan. 10 call between Zelensky and Pompeo that says their offices were planning for the two to meet in Kyiv at the end of January.
Pompeo’s visit comes after Ukrainian authorities opened an investigation into the possible illegal surveillance of Yovanovitch, who was recalled by Pompeo in April. Text messages released last week from Lev Parnas, a Rudy Giuliani associate who played a key role in his Trump-approved Ukraine back-channel campaign, showed a conversation between Parnas and another man discussing Yovanovitch’s movements in Kyiv.
That other man, Robert Hyde, a relatively obscure landscaper and Connecticut congressional candidate who has been photographed with Trump, wrote to Parnas in March about having contacts in Ukraine who were watching Yovanovitch. Hyde, who called Yovanovitch a “bitch” in the texts, went on to say, “They are willing to help if we/you would like a price.” And he added: “Guess you can do anything in the Ukraine with money...what I was told.”
It’s unclear whether the men were actually coordinating surveillance of Yovanovitch in Kyiv, but Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, whose own relationship with the former ambassador had been tense due to her criticism of his work, ordered investigators to look into it.
Pompeo broke his silence on the matter last Friday, telling an Indianapolis radio host, “We will do everything we need to do to evaluate whether there was something that took place there,” according to the Associated Press. “I suspect that much of what’s been reported will ultimately prove wrong, but our obligation, my obligation as secretary of state, is to make sure that we evaluate, investigate,” Pompeo was quoted as saying. “Anytime there is someone who posits that there may have been a risk to one of our officers, we’ll obviously do that.”
Yovanovitch was recalled and ordered to leave Kyiv suddenly, leaving her elderly mother behind, last April. According to witnesses, including Yovanovitch herself, who testified publicly in the House impeachment investigation, Pompeo had indicated to other State Department officials that Yovanovitch had lost the confidence of Trump after the president was told by Giuliani and others that she had been badmouthing him. There’s no evidence to indicate that Yovanovitch had done so, and colleagues who’ve known her for years have said the career diplomat who served under Democrat and Republican presidents would never do that.
According to impeachment testimony by several former and current Trump administration officials, Pompeo was fully aware of the effort led by Giuliani, a lawyer working for Trump, to remove Yovanovitch and pressure Zelensky to open investigations that helped Trump politically in exchange for military aid and a White House visit.
Pompeo has so far declined to speak about his personal role in the effort led by Giuliani.