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Steven Pifer, Former Ambassador To Ukraine, Weighs In On Impeachment Hearings


Throughout the impeachment inquiry, veteran diplomats have raised concerns about a so-called irregular back channel that was sending a message to the new president of Ukraine. And that message - if you want U.S. support, announce investigations into President Trump's political rivals. Today's key witness said all of that happened out in the open.


GORDON SONDLAND: I'm not sure how someone could characterize something as an irregular channel when you're talking to the president of the United States, the secretary of state, the national security adviser, the chief of staff of the White House, the secretary of energy. I don't know how that's irregular.

CORNISH: That's U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Now, to help us make sense of the U.S. approach to Ukraine, we've asked a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine to join us, Steven Pifer.

Welcome to the program.


CORNISH: How much did what you heard today deviate from the norm?

PIFER: Well, the channel - there was this - obviously, whether you want to call it an irregular channel - however you term it, it was a channel that was not pursuing U.S. government interests. What Ambassador Yovanovitch was doing in Ukraine before her early removal, and then Ambassador Taylor, was designed to advance U.S. interests. And on the side, whether you call it an irregular channel or whatever, you've got Mr. Giuliani, Ambassador Sondland, working on an effort that's designed to promote the president's personal political interests.

CORNISH: Sounds...

PIFER: That's the problem.

CORNISH: Sounds like you weren't buying Sondland's saying that, look; it's not irregular. Everybody understood what was going on.

PIFER: Well, I mean, I think one of the things that we learned today was at least at the top, it sounds like the chief of staff at the White House, the secretary of state, the vice president were aware. But, you know, people who were working and managing U.S.-Ukraine relations on a day-to-day basis, it appears, were not involved. Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent at the State Department, for example, or Dr. Fiona Hill and Col. Vindman at the National Security Council - they only became aware rather late in the game about this.

CORNISH: Now, Sondland also insisted that there was a clear quid pro quo - that Ukraine's President Zelenskiy had to call for investigations if Zelenskiy wanted to get that meeting with the president or military aid. But Zelenskiy has always said there was no pressure, no blackmail from the U.S. How do you understand those remarks based on your experience in Ukraine?

PIFER: Well, I'm not surprised. I mean, there is no advantage to President Zelenskiy or to Ukraine for him to come out now and directly contradict the president of the United States. What Ukraine has to do - and I think they're doing a fairly good job with the last couple of ones - is walk this fine line between, on the one hand, trying not to antagonize the president but also - and I was in Ukraine about two and a half weeks ago. As far as I could see, there are no serious investigations. They also don't want to have Ukraine inserted into our domestic politics in a way that would disrupt a huge asset the Ukraine has had going back to 1991, which is - that is bipartisan support from Republicans and Democrats alike in Congress.

CORNISH: But now Ukraine is in the headlines all the time. I mean, you were in Kyiv. How are people reacting to the impeachment inquiry in the U.S.?

PIFER: They're nervous. I mean, Russia has inflicted a conflict on Ukraine now for more than five years. More than 13,000 people have been killed. And while Ukrainians want to be fully integrated in Europe, they look at the United States and say the United States is the geopolitical balance to Russia. And anything that sort of threatens to cause tension or problems in that relationship between Washington and Kyiv is going to make Ukraine nervous, you know, particularly now, at a crucial time when they have a fairly new president. And in just a couple of weeks, he's going to sit down for his first meeting with Vladimir Putin and try to see if he can end the war in Eastern Ukraine.

CORNISH: He's doing that as the U.S. has no envoy - right? - since Ambassador Kurt Volker stepped down. Does that make sense for us?

PIFER: It depends on how we want to pursue the diplomacy. Remember. Ambassador Volker first came on board, and his duty - primary function was to deal with the Russians in a way to support the German and French-led effort to mediate a peace. My understanding is for the last year and a half or so, the Russians haven't been prepared to engage with Ambassador Volker, so that is really no longer relevant. But it may need - if we want to be more actively engaged, we may need to have some more diplomatic horsepower to help with Ukraine.

CORNISH: That's former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer. He's now a senior fellow at Brookings.

Thank you for your time.

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