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Where Things Stand With U.S.-Ukraine Relations

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Ukraine's president has been angling for an invitation to the White House since he took office - still no luck. But Ukrainian officials say that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will travel to Kyiv in early January. Ukraine is eager to get a signal of support from the U.S. and smooth over relations after the impeachment of Donald Trump. So let's take a look now at where things stand with NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Ukraine's been at the center of the impeachment proceedings here in the U.S. And in the meantime, have relations between these two countries gotten back to normal?

KELEMEN: Well, not yet. And believe me, diplomats are trying. The acting assistant secretary of state was in Ukraine recently. But at the very same time, Trump's private lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was there making the rounds. That's been kind of a problem for the Ukrainians.

SHAPIRO: Making the rounds with people who American diplomats in the normal channels might not associate with.

KELEMEN: Right. I mean, Giuliani has been meeting with kind of some shady characters and still bad-mouthing the State Department's role in Ukraine. U.S. diplomats, on the other hand, have been trying to help Ukraine end a war with Russia. I mean, these are really heavy issues they're dealing with. We heard a lot about these two tracks during the impeachment hearings. They're still at play.

SHAPIRO: We saw a parade of American diplomats who work in Ukraine testify during the impeachment inquiry. Are they still on the job?

KELEMEN: Yeah, for the most part, keeping a very low profile. But one of them, the acting ambassador, Bill Taylor, is handing off his duties on New Year's Day and clearing out before Secretary Pompeo is expected to arrive. Now, the State Department hasn't announced any visit, but the Ukrainians say they're expecting him in January. And Taylor, who was brought out of retirement to run the embassy temporarily, is leaving Kyiv on January 2.

SHAPIRO: Now, Donald Trump was impeached for abuse of power in relation to Ukraine, and his defenders will argue that, in the end, Ukraine got the military aid that was put on hold and the country did not open the investigations that Trump wanted into his Democratic rivals. In fact, on Fox News, host Tucker Carlson went even farther. Here's part of what he said.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "TUCKER CARLSON TONIGHT")

TUCKER CARLSON: Why should I root for Ukraine against Russia? I'm totally - I'm sincerely confused. Why shouldn't I root for Russia against Ukraine or Latvia against Moldova? Like, why should I care at all?

SHAPIRO: Answer that question for us - what are American interests in Ukraine?

KELEMEN: Well, it's important to look back into recent history here. I mean, it's not just a matter of picking sides; there's some really fundamental principles at stake - shared values, the need to make clear to Russia that it can't just change borders at will and...

SHAPIRO: Grabbing Crimea, you're referring to.

KELEMEN: Exactly. And getting away with it. But there's more to it, Ari. Let's take a listen to Stanford University's Steven Pifer. He's a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

STEVEN PIFER: Ukraine has been a very good partner of the United States for more than 25 years, including doing things like getting rid of what was in the 1990s the world's third largest nuclear arsenal, consisting of intercontinental ballistic missiles and bombers that were targeting American cities.

KELEMEN: So what he's talking about is that the former Soviet republics of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan used to house nuclear weapons from the Soviet arsenal, and they agreed to give up those stockpiles in exchange for security assurances from Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. Now, Pifer says this does matter today. For instance, you know, you think about if the North Koreans ask, hey, Ukraine, how did those security assurances work out for you? He says it would be good for the Ukrainians to at least say, well, the Russians may have violated the agreement, but the Americans were there for us.

SHAPIRO: There was some news yesterday suggesting that this relationship might be getting back on track. The Ukrainians announced that they are buying more Javelin anti-tank weapons from the U.S. How significant is this?

KELEMEN: Well, Ukrainians see these weapons as a deterrent to Russia, even though they're stored pretty far away from the front lines. And it was clear from the Ukrainian embassy's announcement about this sale - by the way, they're buying them, not getting them for U.S. aid - but that they see this sale as a sign of renewed partnership.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen, thank you.

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