The US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrived in Kyiv on Thursday, a trip that also took him to Central Asian countries. The sensitive visits, so far delayed twice, are paid in pursuit of Washington’s strategic goals and also some of President Donald Trump’s personal objectives.
Pompeo Ukraine visit’s goals
One of the essential cases that brought Trump under impeachment was Ukraine and the American $400 million military aids to Kyiv. Trump is accused of withholding the aid to Ukraine to press Kyiv to investigate corruption charges of Democratic hopeful Joe Biden and his son. John Bolton, former national security advisor, in his newly published book pointed to the suspended military aid.
Even though the Republican-controlled Senate blocked witnesses to the Trump trial and cleared the path to his acquittal, the impeachment proceedings have dealt a major blow to the president’s popularity, in which he invested immensely. A recent joint Reuters-Ipsos poll showed that over 53 percent of the Americans increasingly believe that the president made mistakes in the Ukraine case. So, one of the goals of Pompeo’s visit is to mend Trump’s image by painting the Washington-Kyiv ties as strong.
Pompeo is the highest-ranking American official visiting Ukraine under Trump. During his Ukraine trip, he said he did not think that the impeachment will much affect the relationship between the two countries. Highlighting the strong bilateral ties, the top American diplomat said the US under Trump has been the firmest defender of Ukraine’s sovereignty. He added that Washington is still concerned about possible Moscow-Kyiv closeness.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has recently shown a soft tone in addressing Russia. But this does not appear to heal the relationship between the two neighbors. So, Trump wants to fuel the dispute with Russia and Ukraine.
Pompeo said that Ukraine is a “bulwark between freedom and authoritarianism in Eastern Europe.” He, without giving any valid guarantees, said he supports Kyiv restoration of sovereignty over the Crimea Peninsula and the insurgent-controlled Donbas in eastern Ukraine. The remarks are read by analysts as ones aimed to hearten Ukraine in the face of Russia, while over the past three years Trump has been accused by his European allies of showing no necessary seriousness in addressing Russian annexation of Crimea.
On the other side, Ukraine is hopeful that the US will invest in the country’s energy sector. Zelensky in a press conference with his American guest said: “We invite big American business to develop Ukrainian infrastructure and participate in projects of road construction and Ukrainian natural gas and oil extraction.” He continued: “We expect that U.S. companies will bid for the development of the Black Sea shelf.”
Pompeo in Belarus
This is not the first time an American diplomat visits Russia’s ally Belarus. John Bolton met in August last year with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko. Pompeo has recently said a new ambassador to Belarus is expected to be appointed soon. This American flexibility towards Belarus is an outcome of a bilateral deal, however. On the one hand, Lukashenko, who is a traditional ally to Russia, believes that Moscow uses energy as a pressure tool against Belarus and on the other hand he is seeking to fine-tune his image in the eyes of Europe and the US.
“Welcome to Minsk. I am sincerely glad to see you here. At least, there are two reasons for it. First of all, you are one of the architects of the U.S. modern politics. Secondly, after all kinds of misunderstandings in the relations between Belarus and the United States, absolutely groundless misunderstandings shown by the previous authority, it is very good that you have decided to come to Minsk and see the country, its people, what kind of dictatorship is here, what kind of democracy we have,” he said addressing Pompeo.
In meetings with Belarusian officials, Pompeo expressed optimism about the expansion of ties in wide areas including investment. He, however, did not go so far in his optimism saying that it is too early to lift sanctions on Minsk.
In his Central Asia visit, Pompeo pursues cordoning off both China and Russia. Although Trump criticizes Barack Obama’s policy, after pulling out of the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and reducing military presence in West Asia, he is seeking to promote Obama-designed C5+1 initiative.
In his last year of presidency, Obama proposed dialogue between the US, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan. He called the group C5+1. Pompeo also met the foreign ministers of the five countries.
After the US withdrawal from the INF, Russia began installing S-300 air defense systems in some Central Asian states and “near abroad” which includes the former Soviet republics. Some of the S-300 versions can effectively block the NATO hostile flights in the region. While the US space strategy says that the F-35 fighter jets should be able to detect and deter any missile attacks in the Russian borders, there are serious doubts about the American jet’s capabilities against the S-300 interceptors in the near abroad.
Trump, through boosting the C5+1 platform, seeks to gain a security and political toehold in Central Asia to reduce the efficiency of the Russian security shield in the near abroad. The West is extremely worried about the Russian deep influence in the regional countries.
Kazakhstan is one of the biggest countries in the heart of Eurasia and holds the potentials to help Europe to reduce its reliance on Russia for hydrocarbons. Influence in this country can on the one hand obstruct China’s “one belt, one road” initiative and on the other hand press Beijing in Uyghurs’ case. Pompeo said over one million Uyghur Muslims are in Chinese labor camps asking world countries to press China to end that.
The trade volume with Kazakhstan in 2018 was $2.1 billion. The US seeks to invest in Kazakhstan’s energy sector.
Washington also likes to expand ties with Uzbekistan. President Shavkat Mirziyoyev’s assumption of power in Uzbekistan and economic reform gave the US an appropriate opportunity to upgrade to, using economic interaction, strategic Washington’s ties with Tashkent. The US has recently removed Uzbekistan from the list of “nations with worst religious tolerance.”
The Diplomat magazine reported that Afghanistan peace and China are high on the Pompeo agenda in talks with the Central Asian states. In a Twitter post, Pompeo said that in a meeting with Uzbekistan Foreign Minister Abdulaziz Kamilov he reminded of Uzbek role in Afghanistan peace.
But Trump’s “America first” policy and mercantilist approach to foreign policy will not prompt the US-eyed changes in the Central Asian and Eastern European countries.