Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun will visit Vilnius, Moscow, Kyiv and Vienna beginning on Monday. The State Department said Sunday that Biegun’s agenda would include discussions on “a range of regional and international issues” on his first three stops. In Vienna, it said he would consult with other members of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe on “regional security and human rights.”
The department gave no additional details, although officials said the situation in Belarus would figure prominently in Biegun’s talks, including a potential meeting in Vilnius with Belarus opposition candidate Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, who has taken refuge there.
Tsikhanouskaya is the main challenger to authoritarian President Alexander Luhashenko, who has defied mass protests to step down. Belarus has been convulsed by unprecedented protests since the Aug. 9 presidential vote, in which election officials say Lukashenko won a sixth term in a landslide. Protesters allege the official results are fraudulent and are calling for Lukashenko to resign after 26 years in power.
The Trump administration has been criticized by some for not taking a stronger public position on the crisis in Belarus. Although the White House and State Department have said the election was neither free nor fair, they have stopped short of joining calls for new polls as some European nations have done. Visiting eastern and central Europe last week, Pompeo called for a dialogue between the government and the opposition.
The administration had been seeking to improve ties with Belarus, and Pompeo in February became the first secretary of state to visit the country in more than a quarter century, offering to sell U.S. energy to the former Soviet republic, which has had a tenuous relationship with Moscow in recent years.
Biegun's trip to Moscow comes as U.S. intelligence agencies are warning that Russia is again trying to interfere in the U.S. president election and reports that Russia may have offered bounties to the Taliban to kill American troops in Afghanistan. The visit also follows several rounds of inconclusive U.S.-Russia arms control talks.
Those talks have been aimed at extending the New START treaty, which expires next year. The Trump administration had been insisting that an extension of the agreement is dependent on China joining, something that Beijng has refused to consider. But in recent days, administration officials have suggested that an extension without Chinese participation is possible.
Biegun's visit to Ukraine, which was at the heart of Trump's impeachment, comes as Democrats raise new concerns that Trump is trying to tar his November opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, with unsubstantiated corruption allegations linked to the country. Trump was impeached in part over allegations that he wanted to withhold vital military aid to Ukraine in exchange for an investigation into Biden.
Republicans in Congress have opened an investigation into possible impropriety between Biden and his son Hunter, who was hired by the Ukrainian energy firm Burisma, during the Obama administration. Democratic lawmakers have accused the State Department of turning over thousands of documents to Republicans in Congress for that inquiry but refusing to share them with Democrats despite repeated requests.