Behind Pompeo’s Big ‘We Care’ Trip to Ukraine

Hobbled by the impeachment trial, the U.S. secretary of state faces the tricky task of explaining a Trump administration policy that has often looked two-faced.

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks by the media as he prepares to board a plane at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2019.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo walks by the media as he prepares to board a plane at Andrews Air Force Base near Washington, D.C., on June 23, 2019. Jacquelyn Martin/AFP via Getty Images

Shadowed by an impeachment trial that has raised key questions about U.S. policy toward Ukraine, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Kyiv on Thursday as part of a five-nation tour in which he faces the tricky task of explaining what often appears to be a two-faced Trump administration approach to Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

The rescheduled trip—which was originally set to take place after the New Year but was postponed due to tensions with Iran—will see Pompeo visit Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan after a stop in the United Kingdom. Pompeo’s agenda is said to focus on promoting human rights, energy independence, and economic reform throughout the former Soviet nations that he will visit in a part of the world that Moscow views as its backyard and that has often looked to the United States as a counterweight to its larger neighbors, including China. The Trump administration’s policy toward Russia and its neighbors across Eurasia has been criticized for its contradictory messages due to President Donald Trump’s conciliatory rhetoric toward Russia and its leader, Vladimir Putin, and his own government’s National Security Strategy that views Beijing and Moscow as Washington’s global rivals.

As Pompeo sets out on his Eurasian tour, the secretary of state will be looking to dispel any notions of a policy disconnect from the Trump administration for engaging with Russia and its neighbors—especially in the wake of an explosive interview with NPR in which he was quoted as saying: “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”

It could be a hard sell, according to several current and former U.S. officials. “This has been consistent: The president has one policy, Congress has another, the defense and intelligence community has another, and the State Department waxes and wanes on it,” said Heather Conley, a former State Department official and Europe expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. 

While Trump has lavished praise on Putin—at times siding with him over Trump’s own intelligence community—his administration has taken a hard-line approach, ramping up defense spending for forces in Europe and expelling Russian diplomats as West-Russia ties worsen. Meanwhile, both the administration and Congress have blanketed Russia with crippling economic sanctions and fought tooth and nail to halt the construction of a key Russian pipeline project, Nord Stream 2, into Europe. 

On Ukraine, the Trump administration greenlighted lethal weapons sales to Ukraine’s military—something the Obama administration balked at—even as the president himself cast doubt on whether supporting Ukraine was worth U.S. investments and withheld military aid from Ukraine, an issue at the heart of the impeachment trial.

On Belarus, the administration has engaged in a quiet and careful yearslong effort to normalize relations with a country that has been ruled by autocratic President Alexander Lukashenko for the last 25 years, pushing to normalize diplomatic ties and draw Minsk out from Russia’s orbit—but sent an unusual diplomatic slight by considering adding Belarus to the so-called “travel ban” list of countries facing U.S. visa restrictions.

Despite his administration’s hard-line policies on Russia, Trump can’t seem to escape the narrative that he is too cozy with Moscow, potentially making Pompeo’s job tougher. 

“Because the Trump administration has been criticized for being too friendly with Russia, it’s important for [Pompeo] to show that there is a Eurasia policy, not simply a Russia policy,” said William Courtney, who served as U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan and is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the Rand Corp. “A key part of that is supporting reforms in Ukraine. It isn’t a model yet, but everyone in the region is watching if it can succeed. If it can, Ukraine could be the cradle of the former Soviet space.”

Holding a policy line and avoiding being sidelined by U.S. domestic politics during his diplomatic efforts may also prove tough for Pompeo as he sets foot in Ukraine, which is at the heart of Trump’s impeachment. Pompeo himself was pulled into the spotlight last week during a tense interview and ensuing confrontation with NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly about Ukraine and former ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was dismissed after Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, made unsubstantiated allegations against her. Following the NPR interview, Pompeo reportedly cursed at Kelly, challenged her to find the country on a map, and asked: “Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?”

“Expectations are quite modest from the Ukrainian side for [Pompeo]. The main hope is that this is about reaffirming support for Ukraine as America’s ally and not a reelection mission for Trump,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the New Europe Center, a think tank based in Kyiv. 

Ukraine has been fighting with Russian-backed forces in its eastern Donbass region in a war that has claimed at least 14,000 lives since 2014, following Moscow’s annexation of Crimea. This coincided with Western economic sanctions against Russia and a mounting standoff with Moscow that has seen U.S.-Russia relations reach their lowest point. The war in Ukraine also changed the foreign-policy dynamics across the wider former Soviet world. Many of Russia’s smaller neighbors, wary of its intentions, have looked to build ties with other powers in the hope of gaining more room to maneuver with Moscow. The United States has traditionally been keen to play this role since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, but a rising China has become a major economic—and increasingly political—player across Eurasia, forming stronger ties with many former Soviet countries, including Russia, and upending Washington’s calculus for the region. 

On Central Asia, there is lots of activity—Chinese activity, Russian activity—and a set of countries that want to be sovereign and independent, and America has the important opportunity to help them achieve that,” Pompeo told reporters en route to the region. 

This shift has been amplified by scandals, dysfunction, and a massive turnover of officials overseeing foreign policy and national security in the Trump administration. While the United States, along with the European Union, has been a key supporter of Ukraine, the Eastern European country of 42 million has been dragged into internal U.S. politics in recent years. Trump has pedaled a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and has reportedly called Ukrainians “terrible people.” Ukraine and its nascent efforts to reform its economy and combat corruption have become entangled in the ongoing impeachment trial, where Trump faces charges of abuse of office and obstruction of Congress tied to his Ukraine policy. In July 2019, Trump triggered a whistleblower complaint that led to his impeachment after a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which he asked the Ukrainian leader for a “favor,” suggesting that he wanted Kyiv to announce an investigation into former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s son in return for releasing critical military aid to Ukraine.

In his meetings with Zelensky and other officials, Pompeo will look to remind Kyiv that Washington supports it in its war in the east and has a consistent policy beyond the partisan fray of Beltway politics. His visit will include meetings with Zelensky, Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko, and Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk. The aim of the trip is “to highlight U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” according to a statement from State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.

“There is a paradoxical U.S. policy towards Ukraine. On one hand, it’s clear that Trump doesn’t care about Ukraine, and him pushing politically motivated investigations hurts [Ukraine’s] own reform policy,” Getmanchuk said. “But at the same time, we have received Javelin missiles and other practical steps that were never done under the Obama administration.”

Other stops on Pompeo’s upcoming tour look to be beyond the ongoing impeachment drama in Washington but could present geopolitical obstacles of their own.

In Minsk, Pompeo will meet with the 65-year-old Lukashenko, along with Belarusian Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei, to discuss an ongoing thaw in relations between the two countries. Lukashenko has found himself under increasing pressure from Moscow in recent months to push ahead with a treaty that could see Belarus integrated into Russia. In search of more room to breathe, Minsk has rekindled previously broken ties with Washington. In August 2019, then-U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Belarus, and in September of that year, Washington and Minsk announced they would exchange ambassadors after a decadelong break in diplomatic relations.

But Lukashenko has also forged a strong relationship with Beijing, with Belarus offering itself as a strategic location for China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative and increasingly relying on Chinese loans and lines of credit to wean itself off Russian subsidies. The deepening partnership with Beijing is also appealing for Belarus as closer ties with China don’t provoke the same anxiety out of Moscow as turning to the West does.

“That’s the conundrum for Belarus: How do you have good relations with the West and not provoke Russia?” said Katsiaryna Shmatsina, an analyst at the Belarusian Institute for Strategic Studies, a Minsk-based think tank. “It puts limits on how close Minsk can come to the West, and it means that they need to lean even further towards China when Russia pushes back.”

China’s and Russia’s evolving dynamic in Eurasia will follow Pompeo as he heads to Central Asia. Beijing has issued hundreds of billions of dollars in loans under the auspices of its Belt and Road Initiative and pushed west across Central Asia, making it the region’s top investor. Similarly, the former Soviet Central Asian countries of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan all find themselves increasingly integrated into China’s technological, financial, and political norms. While this shift has unnerved Moscow, Russia appears to be adjusting to China’s role in the region and accepted its growing dominance.

Pompeo will meet with Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev in the capital of Nur-Sultan and then will conclude his trip in Tashkent, the capital of Uzbekistan, where he will meet with President Shavkat Mirziyoyev and then with the foreign ministers of all five Central Asian states under the auspices of the “C5+1,” a U.S.-designed diplomatic format.

Pompeo will continue to press for market and human rights reforms in both authoritarian countries, several officials say, and offer Washington as a political and economic counterweight to Beijing and Moscow in the region. Analysts, however, caution about how far the United States’ appeal can extend amid Russia’s historical and cultural links to Central Asia and China’s deep pockets.

“Local leaders want the West as an alternative, but deep down the leaders understand that the Western ability to project power in this region is limited,” said Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “Central Asia understands there are two big animals in this forest: China and Russia.”

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer