On Monday, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker sat down with VOA to discuss the recent U.S.-Russia summit in Helsinki, Finland, and upcoming Normandy Format discussions about securing peace in Ukraine. The talks, involving political directors of Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France, are slated for July 26 in Berlin.
Question: Thank so much for coming today. Political directors of Germany, Russia, Ukraine and France, the four nations tasked with resolving the war in Eastern Ukraine, are meeting in Berlin on Thursday. You’ve kept close contact with these representatives. What’s on the agenda, and what can Ukrainians expect?
Ambassador Volker: This particular meeting, they’re going to be talking about what a UN-mandated peacekeeping operation might look like. And that’s something that’s been on the table for a long time. Russia proposed that there be a UN protection force for the OSCE monitors, but the rest of us who have looked at this—whether it’s France, Germany or the U.S. and, frankly, the Ukrainians—have all seen that you need to have a genuine peacekeeping operation to provide broad area security. And what we’re hoping to be able to do is talk about how you build up to that kind of peacekeeping operation. I’ve been in very close touch with my French and German counterparts both in the last week, as well as throughout the last year. And so we are very much in sync on this. They are going to be meeting with Ukrainian and Russian counterparts on Thursday, as you indicated. I’ll also be reaching out to my Russian counterparts soon to convey the same information.
Q: A representative of Russia’s Foreign Ministry told media outlets that they’re planning to renew talks on a possible referendum on occupied territories in Eastern Ukraine, a claim the White House quickly rejected. Are there any grounds to believe there may be renewed talks on a referendum?
VOLKER: No, I really don’t think so. First off, as you mentioned, the White House put out a very strong statement on Friday saying that they do not believe that any such referendum could or should be held, and that it would not be legitimate if it were held. And that’s because you can’t really hold a referendum in a part of Ukraine where the Ukrainian government is not in control. [The Donbas is] under conditions of terrible hardship for the population—lack of freedom of movement, a million-and-a-half displaced persons—so there’s no way that this could be a fair vote. Moreover, there’s no basis for doing it because this is really the result of foreign intervention and occupation of the territory, not the result of an indigenous uprising in Ukraine, as is often said. Certainly the wishes of the local population need to be respected in terms of their ability to vote for local governance. That’s something they have not been able to do since the conflict began, and it’s what the Minsk agreement actually calls for: an opportunity for the local population to participate in local elections, after which the territory would be restored to Ukrainian control, Ukrainian sovereignty. The Minsk agreements are the framework for addressing these things, not some separate idea of outside referendums.
Any kind of referendum is not a part of the Minsk agreement. There is no basis for it. It would not have any legitimacy if it were to take place, so it shouldn’t happen.
Q: A very unpopular law on the special procedure of self-government in certain districts of the Donetsk and Luhansk is soon to expire, and there’s not much support to extend it. How would you see the situation developing if this law is not extended?
VOLKER: First off, let me say I understand the frustration of Ukrainian lawmakers and the Ukrainian public, that they’ve taken steps such as passing the special status law passing an amnesty law, and Russia has done absolutely nothing to help end the conflict, to bring about security, withdraw its forces, and so forth. That being said, the law is passed but it doesn’t have any application today. There is no special status as of today. It only kicks in when there is an agreement, when Russia withdraws its forces, when there are local elections. And so I don’t see any harm in extending it. The situation from today would be no different the day after an extension was passed; it would be exactly the same. So I actually think there’s no harm done. And then the flip side is that Russia will use this as an excuse to complain about Ukraine saying, “it’s not doing its share to implement the Minsk agreement.” So I would just take that argument off the table. Don’t give Russia that argument. It doesn’t change anything anyway. Let the special status be extended.
Q: There were a lot of rumors leading up to Helsinki about a U.S.-Russia deal on Ukraine that wouldn’t involve Kyiv. Now Trump says Putin is coming to Washington in September. What can Ukrainians expect from upcoming meeting, and should they be concerned about what appears to be a new status between the U.S. and Russia following Helsinki?
VOLKER: Well, first thing I would do is call everyone’s attention to the Helsinki meeting itself. There was no move towards recognition of Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. No support for a referendum. No movement toward Russia’s position on a protection force for the monitors that would effectively divide the country. A lot of things that people were worried about or had predicted might happen, did not happen, so I don’t think there’s really any basis to be worried here. In fact, this administration has continued to maintain sanctions on Russia and worked with our European allies very carefully. They’ve kept sanctions in place as well. We’ve lifted the arms embargo on Ukraine, so Javelins [anti-tank missiles] have been provided and other systems have been sold, such as anti-sniper systems. Just last week the Pentagon announced that there will be a new foreign military financing package available to Ukraine. So I think Ukrainians should have some confidence that the United States is doing all of the right things here. And in that context, the U.S. and Russia talking about trying to resolve this conflict is probably a good thing.
Q: Still, Ukrainian and U.S. lawmakers expressed dissatisfaction that President Trump didn’t mention the illegal occupation of Crimea, aggression in Eastern Ukraine during the press conference. It seems that Russia is still controlling the post-Helsinki narrative on what transpired behind closed doors. Can you provide us with some more information about what really happened, as I know you were briefed on the extended meetings held in Helsinki?
VOLKER: Let me just say this, that on all of the issues that Ukrainians would care about, nothing was given away. No handing over of gifts to Russia at Ukraine’s expense.
Q: So far…
VOLKER: No, none. And in addition to that, Ukraine was not even a principal topic. I think Syria was the topic that was most prominently discussed, Ukraine rather little. And I think that’s largely because we recognize that we just simply disagree with Russia on this and there isn’t a whole lot of point of delving deeply into that. I do think it is useful for the presidents to get together. A situation where the United States and Russia are in the worst relationship that they have been in since the end of the Cold War is a potentially dangerous situation for lots of people. So it’s better to be talking. We just need to be clear about the substance of what we’re talking about as well. And in this case I think that Ukraine came out quite well.
Q: Was it enough that Poroshenko met with Trump before the meeting in Helsinki? Can the Ukrainian government do more in this situation?
VOLKER: Well, I think the Ukrainian government has done a lot. Let’s give enough credit to reforms that have taken place over the last four years, since the Maidan. Everything from pensions to, last week, the national security reform, the anti-corruption court reform, the education system as well. There’s quite a lot that’s been done. Nonetheless, there is still more to do to create an attractive business climate for investment in Ukraine, to build up greater growth and to genuinely fight corruption so that people, both inside Ukraine and from outside Ukraine, feel that things are fair. So there’s a long way to go. And that’s where I think the government should be focusing its efforts—on making Ukraine as successful and prosperous a democracy and market economy as it can possibly be.
And another area I would mention—I always mention this—is that I think the government needs to do everything it can to reach out to the population in the Donbas. The people that live there are suffering tremendously—everything from questionable water supplies to power shut-offs, cell phone shut-offs, lack of freedom of movement, physical insecurity, disease, and they need as much support from their government as they can possibly get. And I know that the Ukrainian government wants to help them, but it needs to be as proactive as possible in demonstrating that.
Q: Speaking of Eastern Ukraine, the OSCE remains the only monitoring in the region, and that group was recently compromised by Russia. Ukrainian Foreign Minister Pavlo Klimkin recently said all Russians in OSCE are spies. There are calls to exclude Russian representatives from the OSCE mission, as it was during the Balkan war. Is this now a possibility, that Russia could be excluded from the OSCE’s Special Monitoring Mission (SMM)?
VOLKER: I would say I think it’s too late for that now. I think that Russia has been in the SMM from the beginning. No one should be surprised that information is being passed back to governments who have seconded people into the SMM. I’m sure lots of governments in addition to Russia are getting information from their people in the SMM. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anybody. What is maybe more surprising is that is so clearly demonstrated recently and so clearly talked about, and I don’t think there’s anything terribly secret that the SMM is coming across that isn’t already more widely known. So I think it’s not something to spend too much time worrying about. If Russia were to be excluded from the SMM—which, again, I believe would be impossible at this point, since they are part of the OSCE, but even if that were the case—it would probably hurt the effectiveness of the SMM in operating in the occupied territories, which is where they’re most needed.
Q: Ukrainian officials have reported 15 attacks on Ukrainian Army positions in Donbass in the last 24 hours. This is almost a daily routine in the war zone. And I know we’ve mentioned the prospects of a peacekeeping mission. But are we now any closer to a tangible solution for stopping this warfare?
VOLKER: Honestly, no, I don’t think we’re any closer. These are the same issues that have been on the table since 2014, and the Normandy group has tried to convene people. They’ve put all kinds of creative ideas on the table to inspire implementation of the Minsk agreement. The Russians continue to deny any responsibility for it, they continue to deny their presence there. They have not implemented a cease fire. There’s been no effective withdrawal of heavy weapons. That’s why we believe the idea of a UN-mandated peacekeeping operation is a constructive one. Because it would be a way to create security, replace the Russian forces, and create a period of time in which you can then see political steps under Minsk implemented as well, and break this logjam in implementation. But as it is, there has been no movement on the security side or, as a result of that, on the political side.
Q: When was the last time you had contact with your Russian counterpart, Vladislav Surkov?
VOLKER: We exchanged some notes, I believe it was in May, might have been June even. It was after he was reconfirmed in his position by President Putin. Prior to that it had been January.
Q: Any plans for one-on-one conversations on the horizon?
VOLKER: I intend to reach out soon. My desire is to make sure that we are well-coordinated with our French and German colleagues first. They’re having a meeting with the Russians and Ukrainians, of course, on Thursday, so I want to make sure we’re all linked up, and then I’ll be reaching back out again later.
Q: Are you planning to do that before the Putin-Trump meeting here in Washington, assuming it happens?
VOLKER: We don’t have dates for that yet, so we’ll see how that plays out. But I don’t intend to wait. In fact, I’d like to be able to reach out and see whether we can test Russia’s willingness to genuinely resolve the conflict in advance. That would be ideal.
Q: Again, to make a go of the peacekeeping mission, what needs to happen?
VOLKER: Russia needs to decide. That’s the fundamental thing. Russia needs to decide that it wants to end the conflict and withdraw its forces. If Russia is willing to do that, and the international community is ready to step forward to create security for all of the citizens—all the inhabitants that are there, to create the conditions where the Minsk agreements can genuinely be implemented, and to see the territory then restored to Ukrainian control—if Russia is willing to do that, which is what it has signed up for in the Minsk agreement, then we can get it done.
Q: And so far they haven’t shown the will to do that, and some observers speculate they won’t until after next year’s elections in Ukraine. Do you foresee any possibility it could happen sooner?
VOLKER: Well, any possibility? There’s always a possibility, right? It’s just a question of people making the necessary decisions. I don’t think it’s likely. I think, based on four years of experience, watching how this has played out, I don’t see Russia really changing what it’s doing right now. But we have to keep open the possibility; we have to keep up the hope. We have to keep offers on the table as to how it can get done, so that if there is any chance at all, we’re ready to take that chance.
Q: Are you regularly in touch with Trump’s National Security Adviser? Do you have regular conversations with them about this situation?
VOLKER: Yes, both with National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Yes, we’re in regular contact.
Q: Thank you so much.
VOLKER: Thank you.
This story originated in VOA’s Ukrainian Service.