What’s expected from Pompeo’s trip to Ukraine, Central Asia?

US Secretary of State’s visit comes as President Trump faces impeachment debacle at home, which involves Ukraine.

Mike Pompeo
Pompeo will 'reaffirm US support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity,' the State Department said in a statement [File: Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

Kyiv, Ukraine – The timing of the top US diplomat’s visit to Ukraine, which may become President Donald Trump’s political graveyard, could not be more inauspicious.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to arrive in Kyiv on Thursday, one week after a reported tantrum over questions concerning Ukraine.

“Do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” he purportedly yelled at broadcaster Mary Louise Kelly of the National Public Radio (NPR) on January 24.  

She claimed that he used “the F-word in that sentence and many others” and asked her to locate Ukraine on a world map.

Pompeo accused Kelly of “lying”, but for him and for US President Donald Trump’s White House, Ukraine has become the hottest spot on the political map.

Trump is accused of abusing his power by holding back almost $400m in aid to Kyiv to coerce President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to start a corruption investigation into Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. 

Trump conditioned the aid on Zelenskyy’s commitment to provide information on Biden, the president’s former national security adviser John Bolton claimed in his forthcoming book. 

Most likely, he will discuss the nuances of Ukraine's participation in the US geostrategic manoeuvring in the current year ... this will be a talk about the protection of US interests in Eastern Europe.

by Alexey Kushch, Kyiv-based analyst

Pompeo’s trip was initially planned for early January, but was postponed after the Trump-ordered January 3 assassination of Iranian General Qassem Soleimani.  

Observers said the visit is a belated attempt to bring some good news from Ukraine and improve Trump’s political standing.

“During his damage-control visit, Pompeo will seek to signal Washington’s support for Ukraine, not only to Kyiv and Moscow, but also the domestic audience and the Washington establishment,” Diyar Autal of Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, told Al Jazeera.

The Democrat-dominated House of Representatives impeached Trump on December 18 for abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.

Zelenskyy (left) listens during a bilateral meeting with Trump on the sidelines of the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York City, New York, US, on September 25, 2019 [Jonathan Ernst/Reuters]

Although 17 officials testified that Trump pressured Zelenskyy to start the investigation, the embattled president lambasted the inquiry as an “attempted coup” and claimed his innocence.

“Having Zelenskyy repeat that he did not feel pressured by President Trump would be a public relations win for him as Republicans continue to deny the now well-established quid pro quo,” Autal said.

Pompeo will “reaffirm US support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the State Department said in a statement. 

He will also “attend a wreath-laying ceremony at St. Michael’s [cathedral in Kyiv] to honour those who have fallen in the Donbass” region fighting pro-Russian separatists, it said.

US military aid is crucial in a war that has become Europe’s bleakest armed conflict, claiming more than 13,000 lives since 2014. 

Given Pompeo’s determination to mend ties, Zelenskyy may benefit from the meeting.

“In theory, Zelenskyy must talk about the conversion of a strategic partnership with the US into trade and investment preferences for Ukraine,” Alexey Kushch, a Kyiv-based analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“But most likely, he will discuss the nuances of Ukraine’s participation in the US geostrategic manoeuvring in the current year. Periphrasing Pompeo’s words [to NRP’s Kelly] about whether Americans care about Ukraine, this will be a talk about the protection of US interests in Eastern Europe.”

Pompeo’s tour begins on Wednesday in the United Kingdom. 

After visiting Kyiv on Thursday, he will travel to neighbouring Belarus and two Central Asian republics where Washington is losing its political grip – and is not likely to regain it because of Russia’s assertiveness in its former backyard.

Belarus, the ex-Soviet nation of 10 million, is ruled by President Alexander Lukashenko.

In the late 1990s, he and then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin agreed to create a “union state” with a single government, parliament and currency. Lukashenko, a former collective farm chief, was enthusiastic about the deal at the time, apparently hoping to replace ailing Yeltsin.

But after Vladimir Putin took the helm, Lukashenko used the agreement to keep Belarusian economy afloat with discounted Russian crude and trade preferences.

In the past two years, Moscow began to aggressively urge Belarus to “closer integrate” in what many analysts see as an attempt to make Putin, whose fourth and constitutionally last presidential term expires in 2024, leader of a brand new state with a brand new constitution.

“The Kremlin will push Lukashenko or buy him in the end because he has no other choice,” a veteran Belarusian journalist told Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity.

Pompeo will meet Lukashenko and his Foreign Minister Vladimir Makei on Friday to “underscore the US commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalize our bilateral relations,” according to the State Department statement.

Although Lukashenko is obviously cornered, he is unlikely to change his decades-long ways, and the West is hardly going to be able to rescue his political fortunes.

“Lukashenko was forced to trade away part of his county’s sovereignty, and the West and NATO are in no position to save Belarus from Moscow’s embrace,” Davis Center’s Autal said.

Central Asia visit

Pompeo will then fly to Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two key nations of ex-Soviet Central Asia, a mostly Muslim, oil-rich region of more than 60 million.

Russia calls Central Asia its “soft underbelly,” and China sees it as an integral part of its ambitious “One Belt, One Road” project aimed at reviving the ancient Great Silk Road.

After the Soviet collapse, the European Union and the US rushed to stake their interest there – and to tap newly-discovered, immense hydrocarbon reserves in the Caspian Sea.

Under Trump, the US showed little interest in the region – something Pompeo will try to catch up on during his February 1 – 3 trip.

“First of all, we expect the US to present a new strategy on Central Asia,” Kazakhstan’s Foreign Minister Mukhtar Tleuberdy told Kazakh media back on December 23.

In March, Kazakhstan underwent a cosmetic political makeover after its only post-Soviet ruler, ageing autocrat Nursultan Nazarbayev, stepped down, but retained much of his power by holding several positions such as Security Council chairman and leader of the ruling Nur-Otan party. 

Neighbouring Uzbekistan went through more dramatic changes after the 2016 death of its iron-fisted President Islam Karimov who kicked out a US military base on the Afghan border in 2005 after Washington criticised his violent suppression of a popular revolt that left hundreds dead.

His successor, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, started cautious reforms and tried to mend ties with the West, but has recently gravitated towards Russia.

Pompeo will be in the capital, Tashkent, for meetings with Mirziyoyev and five foreign ministers of all Central Asian states. 

Experts, however, do not expect any breakthroughs.

“The US is ready to support reforms in Uzbekistan, but so far, the reforms haven’t reached the level that would make it attractive to serious US investment,” Alisher Ilkhamov, a London-based Central Asia expert, told Al Jazeera.

Uzbekistan may join the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a free-trade bloc of ex-Soviet republics widely seen as the Kremlin’s attempt to revive the Soviet Union.

The West opposed the move, but Uzbekistan is “going to enter the EEU in the nearest future limiting its chances to attract investment from Western nations,” Ilkhamov said.

Source: Al Jazeera