WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Mike Pompeo plans to visit Ukraine on Friday amid the drama on Capitol Hill over President Donald Trump's impeachment.
Pompeo will be the highest-ranking official to visit Ukraine's capital, Kiev, since the July phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that led to Trump's impeachment by the Democratic-led House this month on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The visit, which will include a meeting with Zelensky, is intended "to underscore the strong, unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression," a senior State Department official told reporters during a preview of the trip. The official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the U.S. is committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, including a refusal to recognize Russia's 2014 annexation of Crimea.
"Crimea is part of Ukraine, and the United States will never recognize Russia's attempt to annex it," the official said.
Pompeo also plans to meet with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Vadym Prystaiko and Defense Minister Andriy Zagorodnyuk, as well as religious, civil society and business community leaders to discuss the government's reform agenda, among other topics, according to a statement issued by spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus.
The timing of Pompeo's visit to Kiev is awkward. He arrives a day after the departure of William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador whom Pompeo hand-picked to replace Marie Yovanovitch when she was recalled abruptly under pressure from Rudy Giuliani, Trump's personal attorney. Taylor's appointment had a time limit, but he did not have to leave until Jan. 14.
The State Department official declined to directly answer two questions from reporters about why Taylor was returning home the day before Pompeo's arrival. Instead, the official reiterated that Pompeo aims to show continued U.S. support for Ukraine's independence and a series of Zelensky's reforms, primarily strengthening the rule of law and combating corruption to foster more international investment.
Ukraine has emerged as the epicenter of the House inquiry that led to Trump's impeachment. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has so far declined to transmit the articles of impeachment as Democrats try to seek assurances about the scope of an expected trial of Trump in the Republican-led Senate.
At the heart of the Democrats' case is the allegation that Trump tried to leverage a White House meeting and military aid, sought by Ukraine to combat Russian military aggression, to pressure Zelensky to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, as well as a probe of an unfounded theory that Kiev conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.
The official speaking Monday declined to answer questions about whether Pompeo would talk with Ukrainian officials about pursuing a Biden investigation, which Giuliani was pushing as a precondition for U.S. security assistance.
Giuliani has continued to press Ukrainian officials for information that could benefit Trump politically. Giuliani's latest trip to the country was earlier this month.
Though the United States has been focused on foreign policy involving Ukraine, Moscow is likely to be more attentive to Pompeo's trip to Minsk, in Belarus.
The United States has not had an ambassador in Belarus since 2008, when most U.S. diplomats were expelled after Washington announced sanctions on the country over human rights abuses. Now, the United States is preparing to restore diplomatic ties with Belarus, sometimes referred to as "the last dictatorship in Europe," as Russian President Vladimir Putin tries to "integrate" it closer to the Russian Federation.
Following his visit to Ukraine and Belarus, Pompeo plans to stop in other countries in the region.
"Excited to travel to Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Cyprus in the new year to meet with counterparts and affirm U.S. priorities across Europe and South Central Asia," Pompeo said in a tweet Monday.