Ukraine 'invisible' as impeachment hearings focus on Washington drama

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By Alexander Smith  with NBC News World News
Image: Ukrainian policemen patrol a street near the new line of contact in
Ukrainian policemen patrol in eastern Ukraine earlier this month.   -  Copyright  Evgeniy Maloletka

While the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump has focused on political drama in Washington, some believe that Ukraine has been unfairly overlooked in the debate."In the Trump impeachment saga, Ukraine is a central character — but a voiceless and largely invisible one," the Kyiv Post newspaper wrote Friday.The two veteran diplomats who opened the public phase of the inquiry appeared eager to change that.Bill Taylor, acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, spoke of "two Ukraine stories." In the first, he said, "Ukraine is merely an object … in a rancorous story" enveloping American politics."But there is another Ukraine story—a positive, bipartisan one," he added. "In this second story, Ukraine is the subject."

Ukrainian policemen patrol in eastern Ukraine earlier this month.
Ukrainian policemen patrol in eastern Ukraine earlier this month.Evgeniy Maloletka

On the border between Russia and the West, Ukraine is fighting a war against Moscow-backed separatists that has claimed some 13,000 lives and continues to kill people every week.The country, which gained independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, is attempting to fight an endemic corruption problem that has plagued it for decades.Many in the U.S. and elsewhere believe protecting and boosting Ukrainian democracy and freedom from Russian aggression is key to American and Western interests. Washington has provided $1.5 billion in aid over the past five years, including military training and equipment.But that's also why many were dismayed at the suggestion Trump threatened to withhold this military assistance for domestic political gain.The House hearings, the first of their kind in 20 years, center on the question of whether Trump used the aid and other perks as an incentive to help investigate his potential presidential rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly ousted from her post and derided by Trump as "bad news" in a phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, was on Friday giving public testimony in the House impeachment inquiry. She also testified behind closed doors last month, where she detailed her abrupt departure from her post.Yovanovitch said her goal as ambassador to Ukraine was to make it a free democratic society with rule of law, and noted noted that it is a contentious region in which the U.S. is in a power struggle with Russia. She said if Kremlin interests prevail, it could embolden Russian to expand its aggression.But aside for the career diplomats who have testified, Ukraine's problems are not highlighted during the proceedings — and usually it's in the context of what they mean for the future of the White House, rather than the country attempting to deal with them."There is a long standing issue of countries overlooking Ukraine," said Duncan Allan, a former British diplomat who served in embassies in Kyiv and Moscow. "And I think we've seen that happen again with the current situation in Washington."

George Kent, left, and William Taylor are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.
George Kent, left, and William Taylor are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.J. Scott Applewhite

Taylor spelled out on Wednesday exactly why U.S. aid is so important to Ukraine."Russian-led forces continue to kill Ukrainians in the war, one or two a week," he said. "More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance."The acting ambassador spoke of "young people in a young nation, struggling to break free of its past" and a country that is "hopeful that their new government will finally usher in a new Ukraine, proud of its independence from Russia, eager to join Western institutions and enjoy a more secure and prosperous life."George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state, likened Ukraine's struggle against Russian aggression to the foundation of his own country.Ukrainian volunteer battalions who have helped fight the Russian-backed rebels, he said, "are the 21st century Ukrainian equivalent of our own Minutemen in 1776, buying time for the regular army to reconstitute."In this analogy, he said U.S. aid was "echo of Lafayette's organized assistance to General George Washington's army and Admiral John Paul Jones' navy."