In international relations, it was a weekend of star power. World leaders, experts, and top journalists gathered for Yalta European Strategy (YES), held at Kyiv’s Mystetskyi Arsenal on September 15-16, to discuss Ukraine’s European future and the local and international challenges the country faces.
The annual forum boasted guests like former United States Secretary of State John Kerry, former United Kingdom Prime Minister Tony Blair, and Serbian performance artist Marina Abramovich. But among the most noteworthy speakers was U.S. Special Representative for Ukrainian Negotiations Kurt Volker.
Appointed in July, Volker used his press briefing at the YES forum to talk about Russia’s proposal to introduce United Nations peacekeepers in the east Ukrainian conflict zone and the prospect of providing Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons, amongst other subjects.
Hromadske has selected some of his most important statements.
On UN Peacekeepers In Eastern Ukraine
Volker stressed that a UN peacekeeping force could help both sides to move beyond the simmering status quo in eastern Ukraine and eventually implement the Minsk Accords, which call for local elections in the occupied Donbas region.
“The ceasefire was never being implemented, people were dying – a couple people a week would die. So getting out of that…cycle of stagnation is important,” Volker said. “A peacekeeping force, if there were one, that had responsibility for the area — instead of Russian forces being there occupying the area — could be a way to provide security for people and to provide access for Ukrainian authorities.”
The peacekeepers would help “provide a space where you can have elections, a space where you can see the implementation of the Minsk agreements,” he added.
Photo credit: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl
However, Volker also stressed the need for caution. Until very recently, Russia has actively opposed a UN protection force for the conflict zone. As a result, the proposal is a “step forward,” the special representative said, but there are still serious concerns — particularly with the peacekeeping mandate proposed by Russia.
“I am concerned [it] would only deepen the division in Ukraine,” Volker said. “It would be along the line of the ceasefire, not throughout the whole area. It would only protect [Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe] monitors, not [civilians]. It would not give access to controlling the Russia-Ukraine borders.”
“There’s a lot of obstacles, a lot of problems with the way it was proposed. But it opens the discussion and I hope that, through that dialogue, we can talk about the idea of a genuine peacekeeping force, and one that would be focused on security throughout the entire area, one that would control the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border, and one that would provide for the control and monitoring of heavy weapons. If we do that I think it meets all of the other conditions and allows for the political process to go forward.”
On Meeting With Russia’s Vladislav Surkov
Based on conversations with Russian Presidential Advicer Vladislav Surkov, his Russian counterpart, Volker said that Russia’s officially stated goals in the Minsk process line up with those of the United States — at least on paper.
“The topic of my conversations with Mr. Surkov are the restoration of Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty, and safety and security for all Ukrainian citizens regardless of ethnicity, nationality or religion. That's what the goal is,” he said. “And I think that Russia, on paper, subscribes to those goals. The Minsk process says it's restoring Ukraine's territorial integrity and sovereignty. Russia itself talks about the importance of safety for Russian-speaking people. So what we need to talk about is how to do it.”
Photo credit: NATO
“We got into this circular discussion in Normandy and the Minsk process: what comes first, security or the political process? I'm hoping we can break out of that circular argument. If we did have a peacekeeping force, as we were just discussing, that could create time and space for moving forward with the political steps under Minsk. Ukraine does have responsibilities agreed to under the Minsk agreements about, for instance, elections, about special status, about amnesty – things that the Ukrainian government, the Ukrainian parliament already passed in the past. And I understand that it can't be implemented when Ukraine can't even access this territory. But if we can change this discussion, [if] we have security in the area, [if] we have access to those areas, then Ukraine will have to follow through on those things too, as it said it would. I don't have any doubt about it.”
Volker will have his next meeting with Surkov in October, he said.
On Ukraine’s Eastern Conflict Zone
Volker also attempted to divine the motivations behind Russia’s changing position on Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where it provoked and backed a separatist insurgency in 2014. Since then, the country has experienced several years of international sanctions and collapsing relations with the United States due to its role in Ukraine. Nonetheless, Russia has continued to support the rebels. Now, Moscow may be regretting those actions, Volker suggested.
“I think Russia is realizing that the situation with occupation of a part of Ukraine has resulted in a Ukraine that is more unified, more nationalist, more Western-looking, more anti-Russian than before,” he said. “And this is clearly not something Russia intended and I think it’s helping [them] to think through how do we make it come to an end.”
Providing ‘Lethal Defensive Weapons’ to Ukraine
Asked about what appears to be a growing consensus in the U.S. government that the country should provide “lethal defensive weapons” to Ukraine, Volker seemed to hedge his statement a bit.
He began by characterizing the conflict in eastern Ukraine as an ongoing war that must be urgently halted.
“Russia has already invaded Ukraine, it's already occupying territory, there's already a hot war going on,” he said. “What we need to do is stop the conflict, restore the territory and Ukrainian sovereignty, protect all of the people. The peacekeeping force is a potential way to help do that. That's what we need to be doing…”
Volker characterized a statement by Putin that the provision of lethal weapons could cause the Ukraine conflict to spread as “really not constructive.” Then, he finally addressed weapons provision, although vaguely.
“[E]very country has a right to self-defense, and I think [Defense] Secretary [James] Mattis, when he was here a couple weeks ago, said it very clearly that a country's defense of its own territory is not a threat to anybody unless that person is an aggressor,” he then added. “So as long as there's not an aggressor, there's not a threat. And it's very reasonable for the Ukrainians to want to provide for their own self-defense and to have the best equipment possible doing so.”
When it comes to Crimea, Volker believes that the US’s approach should be the same as with Donbas, even though there is no Minsk format for the Crimea issue.
“In the course of our...meetings with Mr. Surkov, I made [it] clear that our position is that Crimea and eastern Ukraine are identical. There is no difference in terms of Russia's invasion, occupation. In the case of Crimea, they claimed to annex the territory. We don't accept either one,” he said.
Volker also stressed that, even if the situation in the Donbas improves, sanctions imposed on Russia will remain in place.
“We have sanctions in place because of the occupation and claimed annexation of Crimea. Of course, those sanctions are not going away. [Even] if we are successful in seeing [the] Donbas restored into Ukrainian sovereignty.”
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