How Ukraine Vanished in the Fog of Impeachment

American leaders now understand that Kyiv is critical to domestic politics. But they've forgotten how important it is to U.S. foreign policy.

Pigeons fly next to monuments on a foggy day in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 17, 2017.
Pigeons fly next to monuments on a foggy day in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on Jan. 17, 2017. GENYA SAVILOV/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reportedly posed a rhetorical question to an NPR reporter: “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” By scheduling his own visit to Ukraine on Friday, Jan. 31, Pompeo is demonstrating that they should. Indeed, his visit is a timely reminder that this vast European country’s success in overcoming Russian aggression and reforming a corrupt politico-economic system is far more important to the United States than merely serving as a backdrop for U.S. domestic political battles.

Ukraine is a nation of more than 40 million people, the largest country geographically that is fully within Europe, a potential agricultural and economic powerhouse, a barometer of the possibilities for success among other former Soviet states, and a country whose people share American values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and rule of law and who seek security in an existentially difficult environment. Ukraine’s success—as a reforming democracy, a future member of trans-Atlantic institutions, and a bulwark against Russian aggression—is therefore of immense national security importance to the United States. If the United States can stop and reverse Russian aggression in Ukraine, it can prevent it elsewhere—including against existing NATO allies, which the United States is obliged to protect.

If Ukraine, the cradle of Slavic civilization predating Moscow, succeeds as a freedom-loving, prosperous, and secure democracy, it gives the world enormous hope that Russia itself can one day change. Just imagine if one day—instead of spending massive resources to defend itself and its allies against a belligerent Russia—the West can work together with a Russia that is focused on providing a better life for the Russian people. Imagine if Russia were to overcome its current plague of authoritarianism, corruption, aggression toward neighbors, subversion of NATO allies, and opportunistic support for disruptive forces and regimes globally. Amid these threats and opportunities, Ukraine is key.

It is therefore a tragedy for both the United States and Ukraine that U.S. partisan politics, which have culminated in the ongoing impeachment process, have left Ukraine and its new, reform-minded president, Volodymyr Zelensky, exposed and relatively isolated. The only one who benefits from this is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Pompeo’s visit is a critical opportunity to get U.S. support for Ukraine back on track.

And “back” on track is exactly the point. For the first two and a half years of the Trump administration, U.S. policy toward Ukraine was quite strong. In the early days of the Trump administration, there were major, complicated questions about the direction of U.S. policy. Would the administration lift sanctions against Russia? Would it make some kind of grand bargain with Russia, in which it would trade recognition of Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory for some other deal in Syria or elsewhere? Would the administration recognize Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea? Would it just become another frozen conflict? There were also a vast number of vacancies in key diplomatic positions; at the time, no one was really representing the United States in the negotiating process about ending the war in eastern Ukraine.

Beginning in mid-2017, and continuing until the impeachment investigation began in September 2019, U.S. policy toward Ukraine was strong, consistent, and enjoyed support across the administration, bipartisan support in Congress, and support among U.S. allies and in Ukraine itself. The administration deliberately changed the language that had previously been used to describe the war. Instead of “the Ukraine conflict,” the Trump administration referred to “Russian aggression” and “occupation.” Instead of a “Non-Government-Controlled Area,” the administration referred to “Russian-controlled territory.” Instead of “Russian-backed separatists,” the administration referred to “Russian-led forces.” Instead of calling for “both sides” to show restraint, the United States called for the “withdrawal” of Russian forces and the “dismantling” of the “so-called People’s Republics.” This change in language helped to clarify Russia’s responsibility for the war, maintain strong European opposition to Russia’s occupation, sustain and strengthen U.S. sanctions, and keep EU sanctions against Russia in place.

The Trump administration also coordinated Ukraine policy closely with allies in Europe and Canada—maintaining a united front against Russian aggression and in favor of Ukraine’s democracy, reform, sovereignty, and territorial integrity. Ukraine policy is one of the few areas where U.S. and European policies have been in lockstep. The administration lifted the Obama-era ban on the sale of lethal defensive arms to Ukraine, delivering, among other things, Javelin anti-tank missiles, coast guard cutters, and anti-sniper systems. Despite the recent furor over the pause in U.S. security assistance this past summer, the circumstances of which are the topic of impeachment hearings, U.S. defensive support for Ukraine has been and remains robust.

On July 25, 2018, Pompeo issued the “Crimea Declaration,” which—like the Welles Declaration of 1940 concerning the Baltic States—clearly and definitively laid out the United States’ policy of nonrecognition of Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. Despite major flaws in the Minsk agreements, the administration recognized that they are the only post-conflict documents in which Russia formally recognizes Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The administration therefore insisted on the full and faithful implementation of the Minsk agreements by Russia, which includes Russia handing back control of the Ukrainian side of the international border to Ukrainian authorities. Whereas France and Germany have been reluctant to put pressure on Russia publicly, instead calling on “both sides” to take steps, the United States was more outspoken and direct in calling on Russia to fulfill its obligations under Minsk, including the withdrawal of foreign forces, disbanding of illegal armed groups, and dismantling of the so-called People’s Republics.

Since September 2019, these U.S. polices—while unchanged—have lacked focus and energy. Partisan politics, and in particular the impeachment process, caused most officials dealing with expertise on Ukraine either to leave government or hunker down to avoid getting caught in the crossfire.

As a result, there was little U.S. engagement and coordination in the run-up to the Normandy format summit, which took place on Dec. 9, 2019. In the press conference that followed, Putin, sitting beside French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, rejected any Russian responsibility for the war, instead saying the conflict was an internal Ukrainian matter and calling on Ukraine to negotiate directly with the “separatist” regimes (which Russia controls). Neither Macron nor Merkel pushed back, and no U.S. voice was heard afterward.

On returning to Moscow, Putin further said that restoring Ukrainian control of its side of the international border with Russia—a critical element of the Minsk agreements—would lead to another Srebrenica-like massacre. Putin’s statement, which directly contradicts Russia’s obligations under Minsk, went uncontested by the United States and Europe. On Dec. 23, Russia took a further step toward cementing its grip on Crimea. Putin rode the first railroad train across the Kerch Strait bridge to Crimea, opening a new supply route to the peninsula directly from Russian territory. The European Union condemned the move. The United States was silent. On Jan. 15, Putin replaced Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, and on Jan. 25, Vladislav Surkov, until then Russia’s point person on the Ukrainian occupation (as well as its support for Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in Georgia), reportedly resigned. These changes have potentially major implications for Russia’s Ukraine policy. Again, silence from the United States.

One key part of the problem is that the impeachment process has sidelined most of the personnel charged with Ukraine policy. The administration decided not to name a new U.S. special representative following my departure on Sept. 27, 2019. No new U.S. ambassador has been nominated and confirmed. Philip Reeker, while doing an exceptional job as acting assistant secretary of state, cannot give Ukraine the day-to-day focus it needs. Tim Morrison, Fiona Hill, Marie Yovanovitch, Wess Mitchell, and Bill Taylor are all long since gone. The president has distanced himself from those who remain in office, leaving foreign interlocutors to wonder whether they can actually speak on behalf of U.S. policy. And other officials are reluctant to take on Ukraine policy because of unwanted political, or even legal, exposure.

This is why Pompeo’s trip is so important. Only Pompeo can give an authoritative statement of continued, strong U.S. support for Ukraine. Ideally, the Pompeo visit should accomplish several things.

First, the secretary should publicly announce the nomination of a new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who will have the full confidence of the administration. He should also designate Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun—who has a strong personal record and bipartisan credibility on issues of defending emerging European democracies against Russian aggression—as the administration’s point person for future Ukraine negotiations.

Rhetorically, at a time when impeachment has taken over U.S. dialogue about Ukraine, Pompeo should reaffirm U.S. support for the full restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, including over the Crimean Peninsula (something Pompeo is uniquely positioned to do, given his July 2018 declaration). He should also reiterate U.S. support for Ukrainian membership in NATO and the EU and commit to pursue an increase in U.S. defense assistance to Ukraine in 2021 and to approve foreign military sales to Ukraine, including additional Javelin anti-tank missiles. He should also voice U.S. support for Ukraine’s recent agreement with Russia on gas transits while affirming U.S. opposition to the completion of the Russian-German Nord Stream 2 pipeline.

Pompeo should also reaffirm strong U.S. support—and high expectations—for Zelensky’s efforts to fight corruption and implement needed reforms. This should include a strong U.S. push for antitrust legislation to break up the oligarchic system that has held Ukraine back for decades.

Finally, Pompeo should come to Kyiv prepared to announce the date (post-Senate vote on impeachment) of a future White House visit for Zelensky.

Despite the pressures and setbacks that have confronted him since the summer, Zelensky remains the best hope for Ukraine in terms of creating substantial reforms that break the oligarchs’ grip on the country and restoring sovereignty over the Donbass. Zelensky deserves full U.S. support in these efforts. Pompeo’s visit to Ukraine is an important opportunity to finally make that a reality.

Kurt Volker served as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations from July 2017 to September 2019. He was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009.