Pompeo visits Ukraine as Trump impeachment trial advances

KIEV (AFP) – United States (US) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met Ukraine’s leader yesterday on his first trip to the country that is at the heart of US President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial.

The visit, which was scheduled for early January but then delayed because of Middle East tensions, was expected to highlight US support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia-backed separatists.

Pompeo said on Thursday before flying to Kiev from London that he would “talk about how we can provide continuing support to the Ukrainian people from the aggressions that Russia has undertaken over the past handful of years”.

He has also vowed to back Ukraine’s efforts to root out corruption.

“(I will) talk about the important work that the US and Ukraine will continue to do together to fight corruption inside of that country,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

United States (US) Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko take part in a wreath-laying ceremony at the memorial to Ukrainian soldiers. PHOTO: AP

America will continue to “provide the support that the Ukrainian people need to ensure that they have a free and independent nation,” he said.

Pompeo met Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is at the centre of Trump’s historic impeachment trial for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

The Democratic prosecution team at the Senate trial has alleged Trump flagrantly tried to force Kiev to help him tarnish his possible election challenger, former vice president Joe Biden.

Key to the impeachment scandal is last July 25’s telephone call in which Trump pushed Zelensky to announce an investigation of Biden.

Trump is accused of withholding nearly USD400 million in military aid for Ukraine in the war in the east of the country, and refusing Zelensky a White House meeting unless he opened the probe.

American financial and military aid is crucial for Kiev, and that is a reason why Ukraine was struggling not to be involved in the US campaign, trying to maintain support from both American major parties.

“Pompeo will be very cautious, considering how sensitive this topic is,” Foreign Policy Analyst at the Razumkov Centre in Kiev Oleksiy Melnyk said regarding Trump’s alleged pressure on Ukraine’s leader.

Pompeo has declined to comment on whether he intends to raise the Biden subject during the visit.

“I do not want to talk about particular individuals. It is not worth it,” Pompeo said, adding that he will discuss Zelensky’s “committment” to fight corruption.

The secretary of state came under increased scrutiny last year when it emerged that he had been one of the senior administration officials listening in on Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky.

Trump last year removed the Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and denounced her in the call with Zelensky.

Former career diplomats accused Pompeo, a stalwart ally of Trump, of not robustly defending Yovanovitch either to the White House or in public.

Pompeo’s stance on Yovanovitch became a subject of his feud with journalists this week as a correspondent for National Public Radio (NPR) in the US has been excluded from the secretary of state’s plane, after a tense exchange between him and another NPR journalist.

Pompeo held talks with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko early yesterday, and also met with the leader of the new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Yepifaniy.

Early today, Pompeo will continue his trip in the region, heading to Belarus, and then to Central Asia’s Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.