EXCLUSIVE: US Envoy Kurt Volker on Ending The War In Eastern Ukraine
31 October, 2017

It was once a bold promise from Petro Poroshenko’s 2014 presidential campaign: to quickly end the war. Poroshenko famously stated that the “anti-terrorist operation” — the official government name for its efforts against Russia-backed rebels — “should not and will not last two to three months; it should and will last hours.”

Today, it has been over three years since Russia invaded Ukraine, and the situation is proving much more complicated than Poroshenko expected. Diplomatic measures are not as effective as was hoped. And ceasefire after ceasefire has proven short-lived.

“There hasn’t been a ceasefire, and that means it’s impossible for Ukraine to take some of the subsequent steps politically in the [eastern] Donbas [region] of what it can do, because it can’t even access the areas, there’s no safety, there’s no security,” says US Special Representative for Ukrainian Negotiations Kurt Volker in an exclusive interview with Hromadske.

During his visit to Ukraine on October 27-28, where he met with President Poroshenko and representatives of the government, Volker spoke to Hromadske about another potential way to resolve the war: the deployment of UN peacekeepers in the conflict zone.

“In terms of effectiveness, there are three things that a peacekeeping force needs to be able to do,” he said. “It has to have control over the full contested area, not just the ceasefire line, and the freedom of movement within that [area]. Second, it needs to have the cantonment and monitoring of heavy weapons so that they’re not out deployed, but they’re in a designated storage area. And third, it needs to have control of the border.”

Hromadske sat down with US Special Representative for Ukrainian Negotiations Kurt Volker to discuss how to make peace in eastern Ukraine a likelier prospect.

Possibility of the UN Peacekeeping mission, my question will be about red lines. We know that Ukraine is stating that there should be control of the Russian Ukrainian border and that’s kind of a red line for Ukraine. And we also hear that Russia is firmly against it and the latest statements from Mr. Putin also say that. In your opinion, what can make Russia change its mind, and how could that red line be solved?

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Instead of red lines, let’s talk in terms of effectiveness. The purpose of a peacekeeping force is to keep peace, to create a safe and secure environment. And if you heard President Putin’s comments at Valdai, where he talked about this, he said, “We need to make sure there’s not another Srebrenica”, another bloodbath as he said. That’s all the more reason why you would need to both have a peacekeeping force that covers the full area and to have control of the border because otherwise it couldn’t be effective in controlling the secure environment. So I think if we talk in terms of effectiveness, there are three things that a peacekeeping force needs to be able to do. It has to have control over the full contested area, not just the ceasefire line. And freedom of movement within that. Second it needs to have the cantonment and monitoring of heavy weapons so that they’re not out deployed but they’re in a designated storage area. And third, it needs to have control of the border.

There’s already an existing peace agreement; Minsk. And it stipulates 13 points, and the first is ceasefire, and it’s not there. So why would you need a peacekeeping mission to secure the Agreement which is not working?

The problem with Minsk implementation up until now is there’s no trust between the sides, at all. There hasn’t been a ceasefire and that means it’s impossible for Ukraine to take some of the subsequent steps politically in the Donbas of what it can do, because it can’t even access the areas, there’s no safety, there’s no security. The Russians meanwhile complain that Ukraine hasn’t taken those steps and so they’re not satisfied, and nothing’s moving. And the idea is: let’s break this circular discussion of security versus political steps. And through deployment of an international peacekeeping force you would be able to create security and the time and the space where it’s possible for Ukraine to then take those other steps on Minsk implementation, which allows then the return of the territory and sovereignty to Ukraine.

But how would security and how would the Peacekeeping Mission – we understand that a Peacekeeping Mission is where peace is kept – there’s no peace, there’s no ceasefire. What are the guarantees that the sides wouldn’t start firing exactly for political reasons?

Obviously the sides don’t trust each other, but they may be able to trust a UN mandated peacekeeping force. And a peacekeeping force that has capacity – security capacity, armed mobility, sufficient numbers – could then control the territory so that there isn’t any fighting going on anymore. That would then allow some normalization, access for development of elections – for example, creating local elections – the ability to take other steps under the Minsk Agreement, return of hostages, which is very important. So all these things should be facilitated if you can get a peacekeeping force in place, and the sides separated and not fighting. And then ultimately disarmed.

I started with the Minsk Agreement because we have a point about border control – I think it’s point nine or ten, so it’s way down the list. First goes with a number of political conditions. So do I understand correctly that Russia might agree to let the Mission control the border without political conditions that are on the list of the Minsk Agreements?

That’s part of the problem that you just pointed out. There is a lack of sequencing in the Minsk Agreements, where the Russians are highlighting certain things that they want and not being satisfied if they’re not done, and yet there are other things, like a ceasefire, or a withdrawal of heavy weapons, which are also not being done. This is where you would hope that a peacekeeping force would be able to break this logjam over sequencing, and instead create an area that is safe, that is secure, where all of these things can begin to take place. You’re right that Russian vehemently objects to Ukraine establishing control of the border now, so the hope is that a peacekeeping force would be able to exercise control of the border, stabilize the area, see through Minsk implementation, until such time that is is returned to Ukrainian control. Now I can’t tell you what Russia is going to accept or not accept, that’s why we have to talk to them. So that’s what we’re putting together as ideas.

What are the conditions for the Mission to start their work? What are several numbers without which they cannot start? Probably ceasefire, I would think, because they can’t work while the sides are still firing at each other.

I think it has more to do with political will. The Minsk Agreements have all the ingredients in them, it’s just that they’re not being implemented. And that’s a question of political will and that’s driven by a lack of trust. So what we hope to do is create political will. What we’re developing is what the contents of a UN resolution would be. If it’s passed, it would be passed by both Ukraine and Russia, who are on the Security Council right now. So it would be a different situation.

Is there an understanding of what countries are ready to join that Mission? And how big is that mission?

It’s a little early for that. We’re still not in agreement on what the exact mandate would be.That’s what we have to talk about, to see whether we can agree on the right terms for a mandate. If we have that, then we can talk about what countries. And the numbers. Because then you would get an assessment what would be the number and the nature of the mission required to carry out the mandate.

What’s the role of the self-proclaimed republics in this process? Will they be part of any sort of agreement because it’s them who have to let the Mission in, even though Russia is controlling?

I think it’s already something that’s been decided because if you look at the Minsk Agreements, they’re between Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, and the idea is that you’re restoring the normal governance and local elections in Donbas, and restoring to Ukrainian control. There’s not a place in that for the so-called Republics.

It’s more than a year since the last exchange of prisoners, and almost a year and a half since the last attempt to open up a new checkpoint for the civilians. So we can see that there’s no understanding, no compromise in humanitarian questions. What can make you believe that there could be some sort of understanding, or compromise or an agreement in this very much complicated political context?

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

Well I think as I said, the problem has been the lack of political will. All of these things are possible if you want them. And if people don’t want to do it, they don’t do it. And what we’re hoping with the US engaging in this broader process talking with Russia directly, making it clearer that sanctions are going to continue, making clear there’s no improvement in Russia-US relations as long as this is not solved, or hoping that Russia will actually make a decision to change what it’s been doing. If it does that, if it really says, “Ok, we’re prepared to move on”, then all of these things will follow through.  Absent that every one of these can go up or down, on or off, on its own without any bigger resolution to the issue.

I have a question about Ukraine’s political will. It’s a very complicated situation that Ukraine’s leadership is in, even though there’s a number of commitments according to Minsk, according to the law on the special status of Donbas, we can easily see that any of those questions raise a lot of controversy or even violence in Ukraine. We know that last time when there was voting on constitutional changes, four national guards were killed. There’s always harsh reactions from society, from the soldiers, their families, and also from the opposition. So there’s kind of an understanding of the situation in which the President is in. What’s his political will in that? Do you see this willingness and readiness to go also for the political part of the Minsk Agreement?

Sure. I do, honestly. But I understand how difficult it is. I certainly express on behalf of the United States condolences to the families and the soldiers and the people who have lost their lives defending their country. It’s terribly sad and one wishes it didn’t have to happen. But their serving a cause of defending their country, and that makes it politically very difficult. I met with a number of members of the Rada this morning in Kyiv and I can say there’s a great diversity of views, everything from saying that Minsk will never be implemented to saying it’s the only way to get things done. And I think in my conversations with the President, with the government here, with the members of the Rada, I’d say broadly there’s an understanding that it’s essential that the territories be restored to Ukrainian control. In order to make that happen, Minsk is the only process available. And that if it is fully implemented by all sides, it will result in the the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, which is the ultimate objective here. So I do think that that willingness is there, it’s just that it’s very very difficult when the territories are still occupied, there’s no ceasefire, there’s been no movement on the Russian side at all. And that’s why if we’re able to create movement from the Russians, where they are now willing to pursue a different way than just digging in but actually get their forces out, allowing peacekeeping forces to come in, if we can do that, then that should change some of the conditions and make it easier for Ukraine to make some of the hard decisions that it needs to make on its side of implementing the Minsk Agreements.

We can see it’s Ukraine’s position to put security first and have all the political steps done. Correct me if I’m wrong, do I understand correctly that the possibility of the UN Peacekeeping Mission is exactly that security factor that should be put or replace the first several steps of the Minsk Agreement?

Correct. Well, it’s not replacing them, it is making them happen. And you’re right, it’s not just a Ukrainian position, I just think it’s a practical matter of reality. You can’t do the other things without security, so a peacekeeping force is a way of establishing security.

So if you think there’s willingness or there is a dialogue, I mean you’re traveling around countries, and you can see, and you talked to administration, if there is a movement and something happens, what are the first steps that have to be taken by Ukraine and of course by Russia?

Photo credit: HROMADSKE

The first step is to actually agree on whether there’s a peacekeeping force, and what the mandate of that force would be. And then to put in place the mechanisms to make that happen.  That would require steps on the Russian side to take its forces out, to allow them to come in. On the Ukrainian side, likewise, the coordination with the UN, allowing the force to come in. There would be other steps that need to take place in parallel with that. We need to think, for example, how do elections get organized, what kind of election administration is necessary, and on what timeline that would happen? There’s a lot of follow on steps as well. That’s the first one, just seeing if we can agree on basic concept.

Do I understand correctly that it’s basically the stages of the mission that may work, unlike the OSCE Mission which is already there and doing its job?

Remember that the OSCE’s mandate is expansive in regards to territory, but they don’t have any kind of enforcement authority, they are unarmed, they’re small in number, and they can’t access all areas that are occupied, they can’t access all areas on the border on a consistent basis, they don’t have the authority to contain heavy weapons, just to monitor them. So a peacekeeping force would have a more robust mandate, it would be armed, and it would be able to actually establish security, which I think is then the condition that would allow the other pieces of Minsk to then go forward.