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In Ukraine, Public Opinion Sours On The United States

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Mike Pompeo arrives in Kyiv today. It is his first trip to Ukraine since taking office as secretary of state nearly two years ago. And as NPR's Lucian Kim reports from Kyiv, the secretary's visit comes at a time when many Ukrainians are becoming disillusioned with the U.S.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Vocalizing).

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: It's evening Mass in Kyiv's St. Volodymyr's Cathedral, named after a leader who ruled 1,000 years ago. On Friday, another Volodymyr, Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, will receive Secretary of State Pompeo. After their country found itself at the center of the impeachment process, many Ukrainians are wary of Pompeo's visit.

A short walk from the cathedral, I meet political commentator Ivan Yakovina.

IVAN YAKOVINA: Those people who are actually into politics - they are disillusioned because, you know, previously, it was like Ukraine, which was unpredictable. Now we have no idea what's going to happen in the United States in the next week, who's going to be the president.

KIM: And it's not just the political elites, says Yakovina, who's feeling a growing distance between Ukraine and the United States.

YAKOVINA: A lot of people - they are disappointed. America used to be like a beacon of freedom, of liberty, of anti-corruption efforts. And now a lot of Ukrainians feel like, yeah, we are by ourselves.

KIM: People I spoke with here in Kyiv wonder why Pompeo was making his first official visit to Ukraine now, at the height of President Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate.

I met journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk in a Kyiv cafe.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: Maybe there is an idea that with this visit, Secretary Pompeo wants to show that, look; I care about Ukraine. I come to Ukraine so it could be used as well in the impeachment trial.

KIM: Gumenyuk says the timing is awkward for Zelenskiy, who's been trying his best to keep clear of the political fray in Washington. Relations with the U.S., Ukraine's most powerful ally, have taken a hit since Trump's July phone call with Zelenskiy. Now, says Gumenyuk, Ukrainians will be happy just keeping the status quo.

GUMENYUK: There are some things which should be discussed, but I think it just becoming very pragmatic relations - that we do as much in order to have OK relations.

KIM: She says Zelenskiy should not trust Trump to stand by Ukraine. But not everyone thinks the situation is so bleak.

In a fancy downtown cocktail bar, I meet Ivan Pohrebniyak, an IT entrepreneur. He doubts that Pompeo was speaking for the Trump administration when he questioned Americans' interest in Ukraine last week.

IVAN POHREBNIYAK: Is this general opinion of the entire government of the U.S.? I don't think so. Probably not. I hope so. How much did previous presidents care about Ukraine? I don't know.

KIM: Pohrebniyak, who frequently travels to the U.S. on business, says he admires Donald Trump as an entrepreneur and is keeping an open mind about the impeachment trial.

POHREBNIYAK: I believe that the truth is somewhere in the middle. Politics has one game. Media has another game. So be careful as to what others are saying and what you're reading. You know, try to form your own unbiased opinion.

KIM: Ivan Yakovina, the political analyst, says Ukrainians understand there will be a lot at stake when President Zelenskiy meets Secretary of State Pompeo.

YAKOVINA: The most important asset of Ukraine, the most valuable asset, is bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States. So nobody wants to risk any part of this bipartisanship, neither Democratic nor Republican.

KIM: Yakovina believes Ukrainians' current disillusionment with America won't last forever.

Lucian Kim, NPR News, Kyiv.

(SOUNDBITE OF CASHMERE CAT'S "MIRROR MARU") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.