When high-ranking foreign officials visit Ukraine, it’s often interpreted as the result of Kyiv’s diplomatic efforts. Of course, it’s not always that. Sometimes foreign guests show up to resolve internal issues back home and this can simply mean that Ukraine is losing its identity in the international community.
In the last while, Ukraine has been the focus of American attention over the scandal that arose around Donald Trump’s July 25 phone call to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The impeachment of the US president ended with an acquittal, but Zelenskiy’s repeated insistence that events in the US were not affecting the “warm and friendly relations between the two countries,” suggests only that the Office of Ukraine’s President seems not responding properly to serious challenges.
In fact, SecState Mike Pompeo’s January 31 meeting with Zelenskiy in Kyiv demonstrated, yet again, that the White House was primarily interested in resolving domestic issues, as Pompeo’s visit was preceded by another Ukraine-related scandal. Prior to coming to Ukraine, the US Secretary of State had made an unambiguous statement in an interview with National Public Radio, asking the journalist: “Do you really think Americans care about Ukraine?”
The Washington Post noted that Pompeo’s main objective as head of the American diplomatic agency was to promote US interests and when statements in the press back home contradicted his statements abroad, Washington lost. Later on, at their joint press briefing in Kyiv, Pompeo exchanged standard phrases with Zelenskiy about bilateral cooperation, avoiding all controversial matters. Other than pro formamessages from the Trump Administration, Pompeo offered no news about a long-awaited White House visit by Ukraine’s head of state. Nor was there any word about the appointment of a proper ambassador to Kyiv, where the US ambassadorship has been vacant since May 2019, when Marie Yovanovitch was recalled and the embassy is run by a chargé d’affaires, or about a replacement US Special Representative to Ukraine. Indeed, after Kurt Volker’s resignation, there has not been any serious discussion about whether this position will even be kept.
Zelenskiy’s oft-repeated readiness to fly to Washington to meet with Trump “even tomorrow” may be a nice gesture but it’s unlikely to be appreciated in Washington and an official invitation is unlikely to be forthcoming. According to the The Washington Post, the White House was trying to take advantage of Pompeo’s visit to Kyiv as a response to criticism from the Democratic Party that Trump was exploiting Ukraine for personal political gain, and to make it seem like relations between the two countries remain strong.
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Pompeo did mention to Zelenskiy the importance of expanding the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and indeed the US SecState has met twice with OCU Metropolitan Epiphanius. Back in October, Pompeo announced that the US would defend the right to freedom of confession, with reference to Russia’s attempts to influence Ukraine. “Russia should never get in the way of the fundamental rights of Ukrainians,” the Secretary of State said then. Obviously Pompeo’s active role in helping establish the OCU as independent of the Russian Orthodox Church suggests that the State Department is concerned about the role of the ROC in Moscow’s propaganda machine. The same cannot be said about Bankova: the Zelenskiy administration has distanced itself from the development of the national orthodox Church, while some of its officials, such as SBU Director Ivan Bakanov openly support the Moscow Patriarchate.
Mike Pompeo’s visit to Kyiv was part of an Eastern European tour. After Kyiv, he went to Minsk, Nur-Sultan in Kazakhstan, and Tashkent. His visit to Belarus is especially significant as Pompeo arrived just as relations with Russia were growing tense: anschluss had failed and so Russia cut of oil deliveries to its neighbor. Aliaksandr Lukashenka was ramping up his pro-western rhetoric and during Pompeo’s visit he even announced that the chill in relations between Minsk and Washington was over.
Pompeo’s tour in Central Asia also had its reasons. There, the US Secretary brought up the threat of China. However, it was Russia that paid the most attention to Pompeo’s visit: pro-Kremlin media followed the time-honored soviet tradition of dismissing the US official as a “geopolitical raider.” But that means that at least one of the goals – to demonstrate to Russia that the post-soviet region was not solely Moscow’s sphere of influence – was reached.
Meanwhile, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan began his visit to Kyiv by greeting the guard of honor with the cry, “Slava Ukraini!” More emotional observers saw this as a tectonic geopolitical shift. In fact, it’s early to be overjoyed. The Turkish leader’s compliment was primarily in response to Russia’s recent attacks against the Syrian city of Idlib. As a result of intense artillery fire from government troops and Russian air support, Assad’s forces killed six Turkish soldiers. In response, Turkey attacked Syrian forces and warned Russia against further interference.
That does not mean that anyone should expect the current confrontation in Syria to seriously damage relations between Moscow and Ankara in the long run. In the last few years, neither Russia’s dropping of a visa-free regime after the shooting down of its SU-24 bomber, nor its blockade of sea traffic have spoiled cooperation between Turkey and Russia. On the contrary Ankara has managed to sign an agreement with Moscow to buy Zenit S-400 missile systems, despite warnings from the US, to launch the Turkstream pipeline, and to issue joint calls for a ceasefire in Libya.
Nevertheless, being the temporary third party between Ankara and Moscow could be a chance for Ukraine to strengthen its diplomatic position towards the aggressor. Zelenskiy expressed his condolences over the shooting of Turkish troops in Syria with an oblique reference to the war in the Donbas. On its part, Kyiv hopes for Ankara’s assistance in the release of Ukrainian citizens being held illegally by the Russian Federation, especially Crimean Tatars. Turkey needs to be abreast of information about new lists for exchanges, which are now being put together by the Trilateral Contact Group. One positive outcome of the visit was an agreement that Turkey would provide financial assistance to the Ukrainian Armed Forces and housing for 500 families of Crimean Tatars.
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Nor did President Erdogan forget to remind Zelenskiy of his own domestic needs, requesting that Kyiv join the battle against FETÖ, known as the Gülen Movement and as Hizmet by its followers, but deemed a terrorist organization by Ankara. The Turkish leader persists in accusing the members of this movement of attempting a military coup in 2016. It’s hard to know just how familiar Zelenskiy might be or not be about the Gülen movement, but he immediately agreed to hand over the information about Gülen schools given to him by Erdogan to the SBU. Unfortunately, if the SBU begins to persecute gülenists, it could spoil relations with Ukraine’s other international partners, as only Turkey, the Organization of Islamist Cooperation and Pakistan consider the group to be a terrorist organization. Ukraine should take note that relations between the EU and Turkey, and even more so between Turkey and the US, went noticeably sour after the Turkish leader began to increase persecutions of Gülen followers.
The dividends from the Pompeo tour remain fairly symbolic, while in the case of Erdogan, the visit seems to have opened a small window of opportunity – at least until Ankara and Moscow kiss and make up again.
By Khrystyna Vovchuk
Translated by Lidia Wolanskyj