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Secretary Of State Mike Pompeo Meets With Ukraine's President

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Ukraine's president today. The backdrop in Kyiv could hardly have been more awkward. President Trump's effort to have Ukraine investigate Democrats led to his impeachment. Days ago, Pompeo told an NPR reporter that Americans do not care about Ukraine. He was unhappy to have been asked questions about it, but standing with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Pompeo said he does care.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MIKE POMPEO: The Ukrainian people should know the United States understands that Ukraine is an important country. It's not just the geographic heart of Europe. It's a bulwark between freedom and authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.

INSKEEP: NPR's Lucian Kim is in Kyiv and covering this story. Hey there, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What did you see and hear as the two leaders met?

KIM: Well, it seemed that neither side really wanted to do this press conference after the meeting. The impeachment trial is overshadowing everything in the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship, and both Zelenskiy and Pompeo, they really weighed every word very carefully. There were only two questions, one from each side. And when a reporter asked if a White House visit for Zelenskiy had been conditional on an investigation of Vice President Joe Biden, Pompeo was stone-faced. He continued to deny that there were any conditions, any kind of conditionality.

But when Zelenskiy started answering the question, Pompeo loosened up as he heard the translation. He smiled and he nodded. Zelenskiy was saying he'd only be interested in a White House visit if it was mutually beneficial to both countries, if there were any deals that he could sign with President Trump. And by the time Zelenskiy finished talking, Pompeo was completely beaming, and then the press conference was over.

INSKEEP: It sounds like Zelenskiy was asked about what had happened in the past and changed the subject somewhat to a future meeting with the White House. Is that what you're telling me?

KIM: Well, this meeting in the White House is still very important for the Ukrainian side. Ukraine has been fighting this low-level war with Russia for almost six years, and the Ukrainians want to show President Vladimir Putin of Russia that the U.S. still has its back. And, as you mentioned, you know, the timing is so awkward. Zelenskiy made his first visit as president to the U.S. just as the impeachment inquiry started last September, and now Pompeo was visiting on the day - as the impeachment trial comes to a head.

So Zelenskiy is always bookending the impeachment process. At this moment, the Ukrainian side just wants to highlight the positive aspects of the bilateral relationship, and Zelenskiy said Ukraine is now ready to buy - not just receive as aid - Javelin anti-tank missiles and strengthen its navy with U.S. help.

INSKEEP: And, of course, Ukrainians are trying to make sure that support for them in the United States is bipartisan, that they're not dragged into partisan fights. Where does the relationship go from here?

KIM: Well, Zelenskiy said - or claimed - that the impeachment process hasn't hurt the relationship between the U.S. and Ukraine. And if you listen to him today, the relationship is moving to an even brighter future. He really went out of his way to praise the Trump administration for its support, and he also announced new business opportunities for U.S. companies in Ukraine.

But in fact, the relationship is really on hold. There hasn't been a U.S. ambassador in Kyiv since last spring, and the Ukrainian side really hoped that the Trump administration would find a new special envoy to move ahead with the peace process with Russia, but that appointment was not announced today.

INSKEEP: OK. Lucian, thanks so much. That's NPR's Lucian Kim in Kyiv.

KIM: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.