U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will meet with the leaders of four former Soviet republics and Cyprus during an upcoming five-day tour aimed in part at demonstrating Washington’s support for the “sovereignty and territorial integrity” of states bordering Russia.
A State Department spokesman announced details of the January 3-7 trip in a statement on December 30.
All five stops on the tour — which will include Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Uzbekistan — are countries where Moscow has wielded considerable historical or economic leverage.
Nearly all are also key energy exporters or integral to current or planned energy supply routes.
Pompeo’s first planned stop is Kyiv on January 3, where he is expected to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and other senior Ukrainian officials, as well as to discuss human rights, reforms, and investment with community leaders and to honor victims of Ukraine’s five-year war with Russia-backed separatists.
The top U.S. diplomat will “reaffirm U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the State Department said.
U.S. and other Western sanctions and recent contracts to supply military equipment, including Javelin anti-tank missiles, are key to Kyiv’s efforts to repel the Russia-backed separatists who control swaths of eastern Ukraine.
But Washington’s relations with Kyiv have also been at the center of a whistle-blower complaint and congressional impeachment targeting U.S. President Donald Trump over a withholding of aid and his telephone request in July that Zelenskiy “do me a favor” and investigate a debunked election-meddling lead and a Trump political rival, Joe Biden.
Trump mentioned Pompeo as a possible go-between during that conversation, according to White House notes that were released to the public.
Critics have accused the Trump administration of holding critical support for an ally at war with Russia for personal political gain.
Pompeo will then travel to Minsk, the Belarusan capital, to meet on January 4 with a president who’s openly mocked critics’ characterization of him as “Europe’s last dictator,” longtime leader Alyaksandr Lukashenka.
The stop will be the most senior by a U.S. official to Belarus this century, and the first high-level U.S. trip there since then-national-security adviser John Bolton in August.
Pompeo should “underscore the U.S. commitment to a sovereign, independent, stable, and prosperous Belarus, and affirm our desire to normalize relations to move our bilateral relationship forward,” the State Department said.
The visit comes amid weeks of smallish protests in the restrictive country of 9.5 million over ongoing talks on closer political and economic relations with Russia.
Belarus’s reliance on Russia for fuel and subsidies to its heavily state-controlled economy is already high, and a 1999 treaty was supposed to create a unified state.
Moscow has eyed Lukashenka’s sporadic overtures toward the West warily, and Russian officials have recently pressed Minsk to deepen military and economic ties.
Putin’s critics have speculated that the Russian president could try to use the implementation the 20-year-old treaty with Belarus to expand his authority and to duck a Russian constitutional term limit that would force his exit in 2024.
After Minsk, Pompeo will head to Central Asia, where he will visit Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, two predominantly Muslim former Soviet republics that Moscow regards as close partners in the areas of energy and security.
In the Kazakh capital, Nur-Sultan, Pompeo will meet with the shortest-tenured of the region’s presidents, Qasym-Zhomart Toqaev, and influential ex-President Nursultan Nazarbaev, along with other officials, on January 5.
A country of 19 million with vast gas and oil reserves, Kazakhstan is Central Asia’s largest economy.
It has been heavily criticized for its rights record and strictures on political dissent and the media, but Nazarbaev’s abrupt resignation and handover to a protege this year was seen as a mild break with more authoritarian patterns in the region.
However, a crackdown on recent anti-government protests demanding political reform and curbs on Nazarbaev’s continuing hold on power and security structures has increased pressure on Toqaev.
In Nur-Sultan, Pompeo will promote a “shared commitment for peace, prosperity, and security in Central Asia” and talk about investment, reforms, and human rights, according to the State Department.
Next, in Tashkent on January 5-6, Pompeo will meet with Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoev, whose cautious reforms since he took over after a longtime authoritarian administration in 2016 have provided some hope of further democratization and freedom for his country of around 30 million people.
National elections in Uzbekistan this month were a slight improvement on past votes but still fell far short of free and fair democratic standards and left the same groups in power, OSCE observers said.
Pompeo will also attend a so-called C5+1 meeting of Central Asian foreign ministers while in Tashkent.
Pompeo is scheduled to finish his tour with a stop in Nicosia to meet with the Greek and Turkish Cypriot leaders, Nikos Anastasiades and Mustafa Akinci, on January 7.Print