Kurt Volker: “Russia is running a military operation in the Donbas”

15 August 2019, 10:51

Do you see any changes in policies of Russian Federation in negotiations with Ukraine after the Ukrainian elections?


– There have been different signals from Russia. You obviously noticed, that Russia had offered to provide passports to Ukrainian citizens, which is fairly provocative and contrary to what we are trying to accomplish through Minsk. At the same time there has been an improvement in ceasefire and Russia did also disengage its forces at Stanitsa Luhanska. In the Minsk negotiations themselves there has been renewed discussion about the possibility of a prisoner exchange, so there have been some things that are positive and some, that have been aggressive. 


Is there any progress in process of returning or exchanging Ukrainian prisoners of war, the captured sailors, in particular?


– In terms of the sailors it is very disappointing, that there has been absolutely no indication from Russia that they are looking at the release of the sailors. These are sailors, who were attacked in international waters, their vessels were seized, the sailors were imprisoned. All of this is completely illegal under international law, the international court has ruled against Russia in this. They have continued to be detained in Russia, they are not treated with any kind of immunity or respect as a members of foreign military. They are being charged under Russian civil criminal court, which is entirely inappropriate. Russia keeps pointing at this court process as a reason to continue to detain them and they keep delaying the dates, so originally it was April, and then it was July and now it is October before they will look at this issue. It is unacceptable and it is really a lost opportunity for Russia. Because it would be possible to build momentum with Ukraine in prisoner exchanges and building peace. They have not taken this opportunity, instead, they are continuing to treat these sailors as hostages. 


There is another player, Viktor Medvedchuk, who is trying to be a negotiator or mediator between Russia and Ukraine in process of prisoner exchange. In your opinion are his efforts obstacles or some kind of help?


– I think what is necessary is a direct contact between the Ukrainian and Russian governments in order to agree on the terms of what happens. Certainly, the United States and Normandy format partners all support that. But there does need to be thas direct contact. President Putin and Zelenskyy have a phone call, I think this is a positive step that did facilitate a positive meeting in Paris in Normandy format and then these meetings in Minsk. I think that is a way to go, I don’t think having other outside parties helps, I think it is establishing the direct contact between the President of Ukraine and Presiudent of Russia and their emissaries, their responsible parties, to agree on what exactly will happen – that’s the surest way to negotiate a positive result. 

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Just recently you came back from Stanitsa Luhanska where the disengagement of forces occurred. Are there any effective tools to control such disengagement, especially on occupied territories, because there are some signs that Russia did not fully respect this?


– It has been up and down. I think it is fair to say, that after a few obstacles, the Russian-led forces have withdrawn from the disengagement areas that they were supposed to withdraw from. As I saw yesterday there remains one outpost on the north side of the river, where Russian-led forces are supposed to pull back from and to take down the fortifications. They haven’t done that yet, but they did disarme it. And there are plans to continue working towards further dismantling of fortifications and moving it. I’m actually reasonably optimistic, that this has gone well, it has just taken a little bit to get there.  One of the reasons it is difficult, it is because there is no direct channel of communication between the Ukrainian forces and the Russian-led forces. Russia has pulled out of Joint Center of Coordination and Control and has pushed forward its proxies, the so called people’s republics, which do not have a place in Ukraine and should not be represented. That  has made it much more difficult for there to  be a direct communication between the two sides. The OSCE has facilitated this communication with the Special Monitoring Mission (SMM) and it adds a little bit of time and complexity for the SMM to be conveying intentions of the Ukrainian side, conveying the intentions of the Russian side and then seeing the execution and sequencing steps in the execution. But even with those difficulties it has progressed. So I’m optimistic and it should continue to progress.


Are there any signs of progress in other possible mechanism to stop the conflict – international peacekeeping mission in Donbas?


– I continue to believe that this is an important option. But let’s speak clear what is the purpose. The purpose is for there to be full implementation of Minsk agreements, security in the Donbas and Eastern Ukraine. Russian forces have to leave. And there needs to be a period of time and space where there is security, so that the Minsk political steps could be implemented and so that there could be a condition for having local elections. One way for doing that and I think the best way is to deploy a UN-mandated peacekeeping operation to create that space and security for a period of time. It is not the only way, maybe it is not necessary, maybe people will find a better way. But I think it is an option, that should be seriously considered to facilitate the execution of the Russian withdrawal and the implementation of Minsk.


Still there are no practical steps?


– Not yet.


You have visited Vienna before your came to Ukraine, could you share some aspects of your cooperation with OSCE? 


– First of all, Miroslav Lajčák, OSCE Chairperson-in-Office, is my personal friend and I think has done an excellent job as the Chairman. I also have a very good connection with Thomas Greminger, Secretary General of this organization. So I think we are in the very good partnership with the OSCE. The SMM has done outstanding work under extremely difficult circumstances. You have a situation, when they have a mandate, agreed in Vienna, including by Russia, which says that they have freedom of movement throughout Ukrainian territory, obviously on the occupied area. And yet on the ground Russian-led forces obstruct that freedom of movement. They had people killed, – American has been killed as part of the monitoring mission – they had their access repeatedly blocked, their equipment had been shot at and destroyed, their vehicles have been shot at. So this is an extraordinary difficult work they are doing there. The US is a larger contributor to the SMM, we support them very much, we think that they play a critical role and indeed if we make progress in disengagement and building peace along the contact line, we only need more of the SMM. I think the Special Representative of the OSCE Chairperson-in-Office in Ukraine Martin Sajdik has been a very valuable contributor to these efforts and we are looking forward to the appointment of the next OSCE Representative as well. 


Talking about OSCE SMM, in their latest reports they noticed multiple deployments of Russian military equipment to occupied areas of Donbas, including some newest models of Electronic warfare and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Is this information taken into account during high-level negotiations between Russia and USA, between Ukraine and USA?


– I need to say, it is what we expect. Russia is running a military operation in the Donbas. They want to train their people, try out their equipment, they view that as a military operation. What we need to focus on is political decision-making about that, can that change. So far it hasn’t, but that’s what we have to work on. 


Our politicians often refer to at least three initiatives: Budapest Memorandum, Minsk agreements and Normandy format. Which of them could really help to solve the conflict, in your opinion? Some members of parliament often appeal to Budapest Memorandum, do you understand what they mean by that?


– Yes, I do. On Budapest memorandum, parties of it are the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia and Ukraine. One country is violating this Memorandum and that is Russia.  Russia promised to support the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine in exchange for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons and Russia has instead seized Crimea, invaded and occupied the Donbas. You can say that the Budapest Memorandum is a failure or that the US or UK  haven’t done their part, but the issue is that the only country which is violating the Memorandum is Russia. The problem therefore is not the Memorandum, but Russia’s actions. Same thing with Minsk. The Minsk agreemenst have three parties: Russia, Ukraine and the OSCE. Who is violating the Minsk agreements here? I’m not someone, who really cares very much about the format. I think the issue is what is Russia doing. Up until this point I think Russia has made a calculation, that by continuing the war in the Donbas they can weaken Ukraine, can destabilize, can put pressure on the government in Kyiv, can try to keep Ukraine somehow under Russian influence. What’s happened over five years is exactly the opposite. Ukraine has become stronger, it has become more democratic, more prosperous, much more committed to the sense of national purpose and identity across all of the communities in Ukraine. So now it is more unified country, more pro-Western, pro-EU, pro-NATO and more anti-Russian, because Russia keeps killing Ukrainians. Whatever Russia may have thought it is trying to do with the Donbas, but it has produced the opposite result. And that’s where I hope we can work with Russia to bring it to an end. 


Some experts arguing, that it could be useful to invite the President of the USA, Mr. Donald Trump to join the negotiation in Normandy format. Do you think that could really make a difference and what needs to be done by Ukrainian government to make it interesting for him?


– I think the issue again is Russia’s actions and policies. If there is an indication that Russia is serious and is prepared to really end the conflict, I’m sure this would be very important to President Trump. Again, the format is less important than the content. But if a meeting were to be useful, we would certainly look at that. And in terms if there is a new format created, where the U.S. and you’ve also mentioned the UK, France, Germany or whoever have meetings in the new format as well, we are prepared to support these meetings. I don’t know if we could maintain the high-level one of Head of state or Secretary of State on a long-term basis, as the Normandy group does. But we certainly want to be supportive of efforts in any means to try to advance the negotiations and bring peace. 


What is your view on economic blockade of Donbas? Is it needed?


– It is a very complicated issue. I’m sympathetic to both sides of the argument. One side of the argument is that if the occupation forces come in, they  take over assets that belong to other people, they take resources, take profits from those things. And if you do normal business with those entities you are only facilitating the fact that that continues and you are rewarding illicit gains. So I can understand why you need to say, “No, we can’t deal with those”. At the same time, I think it is a tragedy, that the economy of Donbas has completely collapsed and people who live there have no options for employment, for productive work. They live under a thuggish state, thuggish regime that the Russians have put in place there. And they have no options and no opportunities anywhere.


Except to go to “the army”…


– Yes, that is right. They get pressed into service, if they remain. This is why all the young people have left. I mean if you are young man, you can’t stay in the Donbas, because you will be pressed into military service or service of the so called people’s republics. So they all leave trying to find employment or some way of living in non-occupied territories or somewhere else. Those who remain are the elderly, who need assistance, they stay principally to make sure that nobody takes their property. This is awful. 


And what about  another part of this activity – blockade of water supply to Crimea.

– Let me start with the Donbas. Water is a humanitarian issue, everybody needs it. You can’t use water as leverage. One of the reasons why the water supply is challenged is because water filtration plants are located right on the contact line, so it is difficult to conduct repairs, to get crews to do their normal shifts and to repair some of the distribution lines, that go from the plant into the occupied territory. What needs to happen is disengagement, protection of the critical infrastructure and access for teams.  And this is something that the Russian side has not been willing to agree to as well. This is an important issue and I think it should be treated as a priority among others for improving the humanitarian situation. By doing so you would be able also to improve the climate of the conflict on the contact line.

Now on the Crimea. It is the same thing, you can’t play with people’s access to water. For its price of course, it is a business arrangement, I think that is necessary. I’m concerned, the other way around, that by having taken the Crimea, Russia feels is does not control the access to the water supply. And that could prove a temptation for Russia to launch some kind of new aggression. That should be avoided at all costs. I think the Ukrainian government and security forces are sensitive to that. And I think the international community is sensitive to that.


Are there any practical steps from the American side to avoid further militarization of Azov Sea and Black Sea?


– On Azov Sea all of the issues there stem from the Russia’s claim of jurisdiction of Crimea. They claim the land and therefore they claim the water around the land, then they therefore claim unilateral control over the straits, and finally they claim that they have the right to completely control access to the Azov sea. All of this is illegal and wrong. And absolutely no one agrees with or supports this Russian position. It puts Russia physically in the position of squeezing access, whether it’s commercial or whether it is military. This is something that we are concerned about. We want to help Ukraine with its maritime domain awareness, with its coastal defence capabilities. We reject the Russian claims and support the freedom of navigation. We would like to find some creative ways that navigation could be improved without recognizing Russia’s claims and without Russia being forced to recognize Ukraine’s sovereignty, since we know it won’t. 

Are there any leverage?

– Sanctions. We have been putting sanctions on Russia for five years.  Some of them reference the Sea of Azov and there is always an opportunity for more. We are not lifting sanctions on Russia. In fact, we have increased them over time, the EU has kept them and increased them a bit. It is all due to Russia’s continued behavior.

Turning to the Black Sea. I think we often talk about the Black Sea in a distorted way. The Black Sea has countries that are litoral states around the Black Sea: three NATO allies, three NATO partners (if we also count Moldova) and Russia. Russia has a legal claim to about 10% of the Black Sea coast. So this is not  a region that we should be looking at as Russia’s dominion. This is a region that is of interest to over a couple hundred million people, who live in countries there. All of them are either democracies or emerging democracies. All of them are growing or transitional economies. All of them have challenges with governance and corruption and need to see their economies and political systems developed and reformed. All of them need access to the outside world, to the global economy. All of them see and use the Black Sea as an energy transit corridor. The energy is flowing to the wider Europe as well. For all of this you need security.  And every country, which surrounds the sea, contributes to security. As I said, three are NATO members, three are NATO partners, NATO has a role in contributing to security as well, so that this region could grow in its democracy, prosperity and security for all these couple of hundred million people. That’s the lens that we have to look at the Black Sea with. This is a part of the world that is emerging and that should be supported that way. It is not about Russia. Russia is a country that has a Black Sea coast, has interests and military forces there as well. We ought to be able to live there together.


Regarding the returning of Russian Federation to PACE, is it true, that right now we can spot the beginning of the era of new relations with the Russian Federation on the international level, with a significant improvement for Moscow? Return to business as usual?


– No, it is not. I think the decision to readmit Russia to PACE was a mistake. It damages the credibility of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe had been a critical organization for the defence of democratic institutions and human rights in Europe and it has just damaged its own credibility. This does not mean that Europe as a whole is now turning the page and forgetting about Russian aggression. Quite the opposite. You have, I would argue, growing concern in Europe over Russian interference in democracy in Western European countries. You have concern over Russian aggression throughout Europe. You have now clarity in the language, with which people talk about Russia. You have concern over Russian abuse of national sovereignty, conducting murder, attempted murder on the territory of members of Europe, such as UK, and the chemical weapons attack and the willingness to use it to begin with. You have a frustration with the lack of Russian responsiveness on number of issues that Europe has raised concerns about in Eastern and Central Europe, and in Western Europe in some places: deep frustration with the proceeding of Nord Stream 2 project and Russian efforts to have influence in Europe through energy policy. Sanctions have remained in place through the EU for a long time. Even people like leader of Italian party Liga Matteo Salvini are beginning to see that the relationship with Russia is becoming a liability. We saw that in Austria, with the fall of the government after the scandal with the tapes. So people see Russia’s role as a negative and I think the resistance to that is actually strengthening in Europe. 

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What is the reason of activation of some legal procedures by USA against Ukrainian oligarchs like Firtash or Kolomoisky? 


– It is just straightforward rule of law. If we have evidence, that individuals have violated US law, whether it is fraud or money laundering or violation of sanctions, then we open an investigation, we try to gather materials, we pursue them. In the case of Mr.Firtash this has advanced to the extend, that we not only have an investigation, we have enough evidences and commitments, that we want to bring him to the US and face justice there. We have asked for the extradition of Mr.Firtash from Austria and the Austrian courts have ruled, that this is valid. Now we are waiting for the decision of the government of Austria, based on the advise of these courts. 



Kurt Volker. Born in 1964 in Pennsylvania. He has taught Transatlantic Relations at The George Washington University Elliott School of International Affairs. After that started his career an analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency in 1986. In 1988, he joined the United States Department of State. While in the Foreign Service, he served in various assignments overseas including London and Brussels. Now Volker serves as Executive Director of The McCain Institute for International Leadership, a part of Arizona State University based in Washington, DC. He is also a non-resident Senior Fellow at the Center for Transatlantic Relations at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, a Senior Advisor at the Atlantic Council, and a Trustee of IAU College in Aix-en-Provence, France. He is a consultant to international business. In July 2017, Secretary of State Tillerson appointed Ambassador Volker as U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.


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