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U.S. Senator On Meeting With Ukraine President Zelenskiy

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

We're going to begin today's program discussing relations with Ukraine, where a bipartisan group of U.S. senators recently met with that country's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The meeting comes in the wake of the impeachment trial, which centered on the now infamous July 25 call between President Trump and Zelenskiy and allegations that Trump was engaged in a pressure campaign on Ukraine.

Even though the trial is now over, impeachment has strained relations between the two countries. Earlier today, President Zelenskiy spoke about his relationship with President Trump, saying he took issue with Trump's characterization of Ukraine as a corrupt nation. But he also said he's open to another call with President Trump. The U.S. has been Ukraine's most important backer in its conflict with Russia.

Here to tell us more about his meeting with President Zelenskiy and what might come next is Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut. He's also a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is with us now from Germany, where he's attending the Munich Security Conference.

Thanks for joining us, Senator.

CHRIS MURPHY: Thanks for having me.

FADEL: So you went with two Republican Senators, Ron Johnson of Wisconsin and John Barrasso of Wyoming. Why did you feel like it was so important to do this right now with your Republican colleagues? And how did the meeting go?

MURPHY: Well, we obviously voted very differently on impeachment. We have different feelings about what the president did. But we got together during the impeachment proceedings and decided that as soon as it was over, we were going to go to Ukraine because we wanted to deliver the message that notwithstanding that crisis, there remains Republican-Democratic support for that country, and we want to figure out a way to move on.

Now, I don't think the president has fully moved on, in part because, you know, we still don't have an ambassador. We don't have a new special envoy. The meeting in the White House still has not happened. But Congress, at least, can make sure that money continues to flow and that we still, you know, have high-level delegations showing support for Ukraine and the new president, who's doing a fantastic job. And while the relationship is not back on sound footing, I think it's important for us to get beyond impeachment and show to the Ukrainian people that the American people are still with them.

FADEL: What did President Zelenskiy ask for in that meeting? You know, the U.S. has been a key backer of Ukraine since the annexation of Crimea - $1.5 billion in aid since 2014, aid that was central to this impeachment trial because it was briefly held up. What did he want? What does he want with this relationship?

MURPHY: Well, I mean, he wants to know that we have his back. His No. 1 priority is ending hostilities with Russia in Eastern Ukraine and in Crimea. And he can't do that if Russia perceives there to be weakness. Russia right now, I think, has questions as to whether the United States is going to be with Ukraine in the long run. What Russia really wants is to occupy Eastern Ukraine for long enough that the Ukrainians just give up. They give in, and they decide to arrange a settlement of accounts with Russia.

And the key to convincing Russia that Ukraine is never going to give in is that the United States is going to continue to support them until the Russians give in and give Ukraine back to the Ukrainian people. And so he's nervous. I think he's still nervous that that commitment isn't there because the things that were the subject of the impeachment inquiry, like the meeting in the White House, still hasn't happened. And so that just is further confirmation that we have more work to do.

FADEL: I'm curious, though - a meeting like this, how much water does it hold with a leader like President Zelenskiy? President Trump has a history of contradicting people in his own administration on policy issues, so when you go into this meeting, do they have faith that you're bringing a real message from the U.S.?

MURPHY: I think they want us to take a stronger role in this relationship, and I want Congress to take a stronger role. Remember, we can say whatever we want in funding legislation. We could tie the president's hands and make it impossible for him to hold this money back. And, you know, I hope that we consider that. I hope that when we write the next funding bill for Ukraine, we think about ways where we can guarantee that the money won't - you know, there won't be games being played with the money.

So I think we can take some independent steps in Congress to try to strengthen the relationship and make sure that they know that the funding stream isn't going to be interrupted again.

FADEL: As we mentioned, this was a bipartisan group. Were you and your Republican colleagues on the same page in that meeting? And are you on the same page when you talk about Congress taking a stronger role?

MURPHY: I hope so. I'm here in Munich now at a security conference, which has been attended by a number of Republican and Democratic members of Congress. I'm talking to all of them about new legislation supporting Ukraine. You know, I did raise in the meeting with President Zelenskiy this question of Rudy Giuliani's continued presence in Ukraine, and I reminded him that it's really important for them to continue to resist any efforts or temptations to get involved in American elections.

And, you know, I'm raising that issue. The Republicans in the meeting aren't raising that issue. But I hope that it's important to both parties that we don't go through this whole mess again.

FADEL: Now, you said you're speaking with us from the Munich Security Conference, attending in your capacity as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. What's your reaction to the announcement of the agreement with the Taliban for a reduction of violence, just shifting for a moment?

MURPHY: Well, what we have been doing over the last two decades has not worked. And so I think it's worthwhile to take a chance on a political deal in which the Taliban makes commitments about keeping al-Qaida, the group that attacked the United States, out of that country in exchange for a drawdown of American forces.

Obviously, the missing element right now is any agreement between the Taliban and the Afghan government. But I think we have to, you know, all admit, both parties, that what we have been doing has not worked. The Taliban is growing stronger. Corruption isn't getting better. And so I have been generally supportive of President Trump's efforts to try to get a political deal here. I'll wait to see the details of this one. But it looks to be along the lines of something that I've been calling for for a while.

FADEL: That's Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut.

Thanks for joining us.

MURPHY: Thank you.

FADEL: Later in the program, we'll hear more from the Munich Security Conference. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.