Reported Pompeo comments put Ukraine in awkward spot before visit

KIEV (Reuters) - Reported comments by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appearing to play down Ukraine’s importance to Americans have put Kiev in an awkward spot days before Pompeo is due to visit.

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Ukraine is already walking a political tightrope over the attempt to impeach U.S. President Donald Trump, which focuses on allegations he pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the son of his Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Pompeo, who is due to make an official visit to Ukraine starting on Thursday, will be the most senior U.S. official to travel to Ukraine since the impeachment process began.

Last week he was accused of shouting “do you think Americans care about Ukraine?” at a National Public Radio reporter after she questioned him about Ukraine in an interview.

Pompeo said the reporter had lied in setting up the interview and in agreeing to conduct the post-interview conversation off the record but did not dispute what she said about the content of the post-interview encounter. NPR stood by its account of the meeting.

Zelenskiy has not commented on the matter, consistent with a strategy to avoid or deflect most questions about Trump’s impeachment.

Sviatoslav Yurash, a lawmaker in Zelenskiy’s party who sits on parliament’s foreign policy committee, said Ukraine was unlikely to raise the issue; analyst Volodymyr Fesenko of the Penta think-tank said Ukraine was in no position to complain.

“We may not like what Pompeo allegedly said, but we cannot afford to criticize Pompeo for this. We cannot show our negative attitude,” he said.

In a statement to Reuters, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry said Pompeo’s visit was a “clear demonstration of support for Ukraine” focused on the Donbass conflict, military aid and Washington’s support for Kiev’s domestic reforms.

A senior U.S. administration official stressed that Washington’s focus was supporting Ukraine and its fight against corruption.

Former Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin told Reuters Kiev regarded Washington as “a special partner,” but said the background to Pompeo’s trip was “really unfavorable”.

Ukraine counts on Washington for diplomatic support and military aid to buy Javelin anti-tank missiles and other hardware as it battles Russian-backed separatists in its eastern Donbass region in a war that has killed more than 13,000 people.

Trump froze nearly $400 million in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine shortly before speaking to Zelenskiy, prompting accusations from Democrats that he had misused U.S. foreign policy for personal gain.

After finding itself pitched in the middle of a domestic political row in Washington, Kiev suffered more embarrassment when the White House published a summary of a Trump-Zelenskiy call containing criticism of France and Germany.

(This story corrects paragraph 5 to make clear reporter not accused of lying about content of statement.)

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington; Writing by Matthias Williams; Editing by Andrew Osborn and Philippa Fletcher