Trump Team Weighs Ambassador Pick For Ukraine As Ties Fray

WASHINGTON, DC -- Trump administration officials are taking steps to stabilize the U.S. relationship with Ukraine amid an impeachment inquiry that has badly damaged ties between the two countries.


Aides to President Donald Trump are zeroing in on a new U.S. ambassador to Kyiv—a posting that’s been empty since Marie Yovanovitch was recalled earlier this year after a smear campaign spearheaded by Trump’s personal attorney.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, meanwhile, is expected to visit Ukraine next month in a show of support.

The trip, confirmed by a Trump administration official, will be Pompeo’s first visit to the country as America’s top diplomat, according to a log of his travels.

The murky circumstances of Yovanovitch’s ouster lie at the heart of Democrats’ probe of Trump’s conduct toward Ukraine.

The investigation is likely this week to lead the House of Representatives to impeach a president for the third time in U.S. history.

Among those being considered to replace Yovanovitch is retired Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton, a 40-year Army veteran who now serves as director of the Pentagon-affiliated George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies in Germany, according to several people familiar with the search.

The president likes Dayton, a Senate aide said, and the former general is "willing to take on the job." 

U.S. policy toward Ukraine has been in turmoil following revelations about the president’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate his political foes.

Several key U.S. diplomats testified in the impeachment inquiry against Trump in damaging ways, making it hard for them to be seen as speaking on the president’s behalf.

One, William Taylor, is the top diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv; another, Gordon Sondland, is Trump’s ambassador to the European Union.

A third diplomat is gone altogether: Kurt Volker, the unpaid special envoy for Ukraine negotiations, quit as the scandal broke.

Officials in Kyiv and Washington are hoping a new ambassador can stabilize a relationship that remains fragile and rife for exploitation by a hostile Kremlin.

“There is such a personnel void now on these issues that I do think the nomination of an ambassador, especially one that is political but acceptable to the foreign policy establishment and bureaucracy at the State Department, would be very helpful,” said Daniel Vajdich, a former top Senate aide who specializes in Ukraine.

Ukraine has just selected a new ambassador to the U.S., according to Ukrainian media reports and a person familiar with the appointment.

Volodymyr Yelchenko, who currently serves as Ukraine’s ambassador to the United Nations, is set to take over from Valeriy Chaly, who wrote an op-ed criticizing Trump’s position on Crimea during the election.

The Trump administration official acknowledged the challenges of pursuing a “normal” Ukraine policy “because of the huge political attention and spotlight” due to impeachment.

But the official stressed that the two sides have common interests.

“They see absolutely eye-to-eye with the president on Nord Stream,” the official said, referring to the controversial Russia to Europe Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project that both Kyiv and Washington oppose.

The Ukrainians also are “genuinely appreciative of the lethal aid” the U.S. has provided them in their war with Russia, this official said.

Trump is pleased that Zelensky met recently with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in an effort to resolve the conflict, the official added.

If anything, though, the Democrats’ impeachment drive seems to be deepening Trump’s own animus toward Ukraine.

It also has barely dented the president’s appetite for material he can wield against his domestic rivals. 

And, even as Zelensky and Putin met last week in Paris, making only limited progress, Trump welcomed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to the Oval Office in an unusual departure from standard diplomatic protocol.

Trump’s meeting with Lavrov came as the president’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, returned from an amateur sleuthing trip to Kyiv, touting dubious if not outright fantastical claims about Joe Biden, the president’s leading 2020 rival.

Trump also failed to invite Zelensky to the White House ahead of the Paris talks, disappointing Ukrainian officials and their U.S. allies, who had been hoping for an invitation—or even just an encouraging tweet, according to several sources—as a show of support against Moscow.

It’s difficult to extract solid answers from the administration as to who, exactly, is currently in charge of U.S. policy toward Ukraine.

Both Taylor, who remains the top U.S. diplomat in Kyiv; and Sondland, who temporarily assumed an outsized role on Ukraine policy, have found themselves marginalized after their congressional testimony, two people familiar with the issue said.

Trump has directly criticized a top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, for his testimony before House lawmakers.

And there’s no sign that the administration is looking to replace Volker, who not only gave up the envoy job but also lost a lucrative position as head of the McCain Institute.

The Trump administration official who spoke to POLITICO noted that Pompeo has become more deeply involved in Ukraine policy, thus his expected January visit to the country.

The State Department did not reply to requests for comment Monday.

Another plausible candidate to replace Yovanovitch is Philip Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of State for European and Eurasian affairs.

Reeker is a career Foreign Service officer who also testified in late October.

In a little-noticed moment from his closed-door deposition to House investigators on Oct. 26, Reeker testified that the search for a new ambassador was “ongoing.”

“I believe, having talked to the Counselor Brechbuhl, who I think has sort have been spearheading that, they are narrowing down on names,” Reeker said when asked about the status of the search.

Ulrich Brechbuhl, a former West Point classmate of Pompeo’s, is one of the secretary of State’s top aides and closest confidants.

“I know he and I had one meeting where he floated a number of names that had emerged in their discussion, some of whom I was -- some of the names I was familiar with,” Reeker said.

Asked whether it wouldn’t be surprising if a name emerged “in the next several months,” Reeker replied: “I think that's fair to say, yes.”

Reeker also revealed that he was originally approached to replace Yovanovitch in the winter of 2018, but that it ultimately fell through and Taylor was selected on an interim basis instead.

Dayton and the Marshall Center did not return requests for comment, but the retired Army officer is potentially a good fit.

A Russian speaker, Dayton has direct experience in Kyiv, having been tapped last November by then-Defense Secretary James Mattis as a senior U.S. defense adviser to Ukraine.

And he is familiar with the challenges involved in training and equipping a foreign military force.

According to his online biography, his last assignment while on active duty was as U.S. security coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

Former State Department official Daniel Fried said Dayton is “well-regarded” and “experienced,” and would be a “sound choice” for the role if nominated.

One of Dayton’s recent projects at the Marshall Center—courses for Ukrainians on anti-corruption and defense reform that have been widely praised, according to former Pentagon official Michael Carpenter—could align with official U.S. policy goals.

Foreign policy professionals differ on whether the next ambassador should be a political appointee or a member of the career Foreign Service, as Yovanovitch was.

Dayton, as a retired military officer but not a veteran diplomat, would be more like the model used in South Korea, where Trump appointed a longtime Navy admiral.

Appointing a career diplomat would send an encouraging signal to the Foreign Service in the wake of the impeachment inquiry, and a career diplomat would likely have an easier time getting through the confirmation process.

But given Trump’s long-held suspicion of career government employees, an appointee chosen from the outside is more likely to have his confidence.

“A political ambassador in and of itself is not a bad thing,” said a senior Democratic Senate staffer, when asked about lawmakers’ latest thinking on the subject.

“We just think the White House will have a hard time finding a Republican who doesn’t have ties to Rudy Giuliani or Parnas or Fruman.”

The Soviet-born businessmen Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman helped Giuliani dig up dirt on Biden and pushed for Yovanovitch’s early removal.

Giuliani told The New Yorker that he believed he “needed Yovanovitch out of the way”.

Parnas and Fruman also had extensive contact with GOP lawmakers and donors and are alleged to have funneled thousands of dollars from foreign sources into Republican campaigns.

They were recently indicted on campaign finance charges in the Southern District of New York.

A new ambassador could help normalize the U.S.-Ukraine relationship by providing Kyiv with an official American point-person.

But the next ambassador, no matter who it is or their background, will likely have a hard time convincing Ukrainians that he or she speaks for Trump, said Andrew Weiss, a Eurasia analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“We need a unified, bipartisan reappraisal of Ukraine’s importance,” Weiss said, “and perhaps a senior military figure or a retired U.S. politician could provide some of that.

But it would have to be someone who clearly speaks for Donald Trump, and it would require near-total overhaul of Donald Trump’s stated views about Ukraine.”

Weiss pointed to Zelensky’s meeting with Putin last week as part of the Normandy Four—Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine—peace process.

The U.S. “was basically nowhere” as those talks went on, Weiss said. (The U.S. did not send a delegation and has not participated in the past—the last Normandy Four summit, in 2016, occurred before Volker’s appointment and the most recent was held after he resigned.)

Ukrainian officials have tried to put on a brave, diplomatic face.

The country’s deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration, Dmytro Kuleba, was in Washington last week meeting with top Trump administration officials.

At a Friday appearance at the German Marshall Fund, he largely avoided talking about U.S. domestic political turmoil but stressed that his country is a “natural ally” for America.

He also laid out steps Zelensky’s young government is taking to curb corruption in the country.

“All we are asking from our colleagues in the U.S. administration is fair treatment,” he said.

“We don't want to be shamed and blamed."

“There may be big politics, there may be turmoil,” he added.

“But the strategic nature of our relationship with the United States remains unshattered, and we will be moving forward.”

Kuleba met with Undersecretary of State David Hale on Friday, where Hale “underscored the United States’ unwavering support for Ukraine’s territorial integrity and sovereignty in the face of ongoing Russian aggression,” according to a State Department readout of the meeting. 

“Under Secretary Hale and Deputy Prime Minister Kuleba also discussed next steps following the December 9 Normandy format summit,” the readout said, “and the importance of continued progress on the reform agenda in ensuring Ukraine’s success.”

The readout did not specify what measures the U.S. was planning to take to support Ukraine.

A more telling reading of the administration’s current inclinations toward Kyiv might be found in the recent statements of the president himself.

Giuliani was spotted on the White House grounds on Friday, and on Monday, Trump retweeted several of his lawyer’s wild and unsubstantiated accusations about Biden and the previous government in Ukraine.

“Evidence revealed that corruption in 2016 was so extensive it was POTUS’S DUTY to ask for US-Ukraine investigation,” one of the tweets read.

“Impeachment is part of Dem cover-up. Extortion, bribery and money laundering goes beyond Biden’s [sic]. Also, DNC collusion w/ Ukraine to destroy candidate Trump.”

Source: POLITICO

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