In Kyiv, Blinken Shows a New Face for the U.S.

In Kyiv, Blinken Shows a New Face for the U.S.

The last time a U.S. secretary of state visited Ukraine, impeachment—and all the nasty things that came with it—were hogging the spotlight.

The State Department was dragged into then-U.S. President Donald Trump’s (first) impeachment scandal, centered on Trump’s withholding of U.S. arms sales to Ukraine unless it investigated Joe Biden, then a rival presidential candidate, and his family. Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had the acting ambassador in Ukraine, William Taylor, forced out of his job several weeks early so they wouldn’t overlap on his visit to Kyiv, lest Trump see his most loyal cabinet member photographed with a key witness in his impeachment hearings.

Just over a year later, the new administration’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, is visiting Kyiv on one of his first visits abroad, meeting with a slew of top Ukrainian officials on Thursday.

His first mission, U.S. and other Western officials agree, is to pledge support for Ukraine in its simmering war against Russian-backed separatists, a message made more urgent by Moscow’s moves last month to amass military forces near the border with Ukraine. His second mission, a more subtle, behind-closed-doors one, is to show support for his own troops. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has been without an ambassador for over two years, since career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch was recalled from her post following a smear campaign by Trump loyalists that presaged the impeachment scandal.

Taylor, the former acting ambassador, told Foreign Policy the whole saga had “a bad effect, a very negative effect on morale around the diplomatic service,” and “in Ukraine it was particularly focused.” Blinken’s visit, according to Taylor, could help right the ship.

He said the embassy, including the top embassy official in place of an ambassador, Chargé d’Affaires Kristina Kvien, has faced challenges few other American embassies face. “Not just because of the previous administration, but because they’re in a nation at war,” he said. “Being in an embassy in a country that’s at war … that’s a hard job, a heavy strain, a serious strain on every aspect of their work.”

Blinken on Thursday held a “virtual meet and greet” with U.S. Embassy staff between meetings with Ukrainian officials; the State Department is still minimizing in-person events due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In public, he cautiously shied away from addressing Trump’s impeachment scandal or the effect it had on the U.S. diplomatic corps, instead pivoting to U.S.-Ukraine relations. “We are fully focused on this moment and on the future,” he said when asked about the matter during an interview with MSNBC on Thursday. “What you’re seeing in the president’s engagement with President [Volodymyr] Zelensky is a reinvigoration, a reaffirmation of our support for Ukraine, our partnership with Ukraine. … So that’s what we’re focused on.”

Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba conceded that the Trump years were a “difficult time” for Ukraine. He said Trump’s ally Rudy Giuliani, who led the charge to fire Yovanovitch, was “was definitely playing politics, and he put the situation at risk for Ukraine and for the country’s relationship with Washington.”

“We did our best to avoid the trap and maintain that bipartisan support from the United States,” he added.

Blinken traveled to Kyiv with Victoria Nuland, Biden’s undersecretary of state for political affairs, who was confirmed by the Senate just a week before the trip, and Philip Reeker, the acting top State Department envoy for European and Eurasian affairs. Nuland, a former career diplomat who served in a senior State Department position during the Obama administration, played a key role in crafting the U.S. response to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine in 2014.

In April, Russia massed tens of thousands of troops near its border with Ukraine and naval forces in the Black Sea, ostensibly for a military exercise. The moves alarmed Ukrainian and Western officials, who feared it could be a precursor to a new military offensive as Russian President Vladimir Putin sought to test the mettle of the new Biden administration and of Zelensky.

Western diplomats said Blinken’s trip sent a well-timed signal to Moscow to rethink its aims. “The U.S. delegation visiting, and saying we are standing by Ukraine, means that the Russian military should take this into consideration,” Kaimo Kuusk, the Estonian ambassador to Ukraine, told Foreign Policy.

While tensions have somewhat subsided, Russia hasn’t removed all of its military forces from the region, meaning the specter of a new phase of conflict still hangs over Kyiv. “There’s still a real threat to southeastern Ukraine from the Black Sea,” Taylor said. “Putin is testing, pushing, probing to see what he might accomplish. When he gets pushback, he seems to at least partially back down.”

“We’ll continue to strengthen our security partnership in close collaboration with you to make sure that Ukraine can defend itself against aggression,” Blinken said during a press conference with Zelensky on Thursday. “We’re aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there, significant equipment remains there. We’re monitoring the situation very, very closely.”

Kuusk, the Estonian ambassador, said with peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow largely stalled and the conflict in limbo, Russia is using military mobilizations to try to frighten Ukraine to gain back leverage.

“Russia has run out of leverage. What does it have? It has corrupt money, or it has force. And with the current leadership in Ukraine, it seems that corrupt money is not working.”