U.S. Appoints Special Envoy to Ukraine
9 July, 2017
Photo: U.S. Navy photo by Chief Mass Communication Specialist James E. Foehl

The United States has appointed Kurt Volker, a former ambassador to NATO, to serve as the country's Special Representative for Ukrainian Negotiations. In this capacity, Volker will work to negotiate a settlement to the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the appointment just hours before President Donald Trump met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Munich, Germany on July 8. The next day, Volker joined Tillerson on his visit to Kyiv, where the newly appointed special envoy will remain for several days.

As special representative, Volker will push for progress on the Minsk Accords and will focus on the situation in Ukraine's eastern Donbas region. He will answer to the Secretary of State.

The last person to negotiate the situation directly in the Donbas was former Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland. Charged with managing European and Eurasian affairs, she carried out one-on-one meetings with Vladislav Surkov, a Russian official representing the Kremlin's policy on eastern Ukraine. However, Nuland's tenure ended with the administration of President Barack Obama, and her post continues to remain vacant under Obama's successor.

Shortly after Volker's appointment, several American publications reported that Putin pushed for the creation of his position. However, Hromadske was aware that the United States' intention of appointing a special representative over a month ago. The appointment is to demonstrate to Russia that Washington is serious about finding a solution in eastern Ukraine.

“Kurt's wealth of experience makes him uniquely qualified to move this conflict in the direction of peace," Tillerson said of Volker. "The United States remains fully committed to the objectives of the Minsk agreements, and I have complete confidence in Kurt to continue our efforts to achieve peace in Ukraine”.

The appointment does not alter the established Minsk format, but instead assigns someone to remain constantly involved in the process from the American side. The new special representative will communicate between Kyiv, Moscow and the Europeans, as well as other potential partners and participants in the process.

Volker is well known in the so-called “transatlantic community” of diplomats, analysts, and politicians involved with NATO, the EU and Central and Eastern European security issues.

Although they are from different institutions, the majority of the people in this circle are considered “hawkish.” They mainly favour strengthening NATO and are strong critics of Russia.

Hromadske spoke to six of these experts who personally know the new special envoy to Ukraine. They were all unanimous in their approval, calling Volker a representative of the “Republican mainstream.” Here’s what several of them had to say.

Hannah Thoburn, Research Fellow at the Hudson Institute:

Kurt is a great guy and a pretty good choice for this role, I think. That being said, I don't know that it is yet clear how much energy the US is willing to devote to this conflict. There is still no nomination for either the head of European Affairs or the position of US ambassador to Russia, so Kurt will certainly have his work cut out for him. Mr. Volker is generally well liked and is seen as suspicious of Russian motives.

Alina Polyakova, Director of Research, Europe and Eurasia, at the Atlantic Council:

He's an excellent choice for the special envoy position. He knows the region well and has a sober view towards Russian intentions to continue destabilizing Ukraine. As former ambassador to NATO, he also understands the importance of the alliance for ensuring security in Eastern Europe and keeping an open door policy towards aspiring countries. Secretary Tillerson will have an experienced negotiator and adviser on Ukraine with Ambassador Volker.

James Denton, Co-director of the Transatlantic Renewal Project:

Ambassador Volker is an excellent choice because he has a command of the issues and has the respect and trust of the President and the Secretary of State, as well as relevant Republicans and Democrats in Congress. He is also extremely well-connected and highly regarded throughout the countries within the transatlantic community. Perhaps most importantly, he has a realistic view of the Kremlin, its motives, and policies.

Anne Applebaum, Washington Post Columnist:

Kurt Volker is a very mainstream Republican who would have agreed and would have been part of condemnations of Russia for the invasion of Ukraine in recent years. So in that sense, from Ukraine's point of view, it's good. He's somebody who would respect European borders and who would think that the violation of European borders is a bad thing, and who would be interested in protecting Ukrainian sovereignty. The peculiarity of it is that we now have another person in Trump's entourage who speaks and sounds differently from Trump himself. Trump has still never said anything critical of Putin. In his Warsaw speech that he gave the day before the G20 meeting, he made an allusion to Russia "destabilizing" Ukraine, which is a strange word to use. "Destabilization" is a very weak word and, of course, what Russia did was invade Ukraine. So again Kurt Volker is a very good, very solid person, [and I'm] glad that he's there. I'm not sure that he's really in sync with the President.

Volker's Background

Kurt Volker is a career diplomat who started out as an analyst for the CIA in 1986, and joined the State Department shortly after.

In 1997, Volker served as a legislative fellow on the staff of U.S. Senator John McCain and, after a year, joined the U.S. mission to NATO, where he stayed for three years.

Photo credit: NATO

Volker then became the executive director of the U.S. National Security Council. In this role he prepared two NATO summits — 2002 in Prague, which was dedicated to the question of Eastern European countries joining the alliance, and 2004 in Istanbul, which is remembered for the alliance's troubled relations with Russia and Vladimir Putin's absence from the NATO-Russia Council.

In 2008, under President George W. Bush, Volker became U.S. ambassador to NATO.

After this, he started working for a lobbying firm and investment bank, as well as the McCain Institute for International Leadership, a conservative think tank. During his time there, Volker worked to draw attention to issues concerning Eastern Europe, while Washington was busy with events in other parts of the world.

During the 2016 US presidential elections, Kurt Volker did not sign a letter from 90 representatives of the Republican Party dealing with foreign policy, which called people not to support Donald Trump.

Several of Hromadske’s sources have noted that the diplomat has long wanted to return to government.

As we await Volker’s statement on his new position, Hromadske has looked into several of his public speeches from the past year. They provide insight into his views on resolving the conflict in the Donbas and U.S. relations with Russia.

Panel: Ukraine's Battle for Freedom Continues

Washington, D.C., USA / May 30, 2016

We had the Budapest Memorandum, which gave Ukraine the confidence to get rid of its nuclear weapons because it was being told by Russia, the United States, the UK, and France that we would guarantee the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. Well, that security architecture is under threat today. We have seen Russia invade neighbouring countries: Georgia, Ukraine. We’ve seen them occupy territories: South Ossetia, Abkhazia, Ukraine again. We’ve seen them annex territory: Crimea. We’ve seen them declare some of these territories to be independent states, such as Abkhazia and South Ossetia. We’ve seen them have de facto undeclared occupation, such as Transnistria in Moldova. We’ve seen them change borders by force. We’ve seen them annex territory. But that alone is also not the principal reason that we should care about this. We should care on the human side. We should care on the security side as well, but there is more. We have, as a nation, a commitment to our own core values and our own security. And quite frankly we have countries, and Ukraine is one of the most important ones, that sits in this — and I hate to use the phrase, because it’s often misused — but sits in this grey area where we have not made a commitment to Ukraine’s security. But simply out of a raw sense of self-preservation and of national interest, I think we owe it to ourselves and to our Ukrainian friends and allies to do much much more to help Ukraine succeed today.


Panel: Addressing the Putin Challenge: Ukraine and Beyond

Washington, D.C., USA / September 14, 2016

The Russian author that I read to learn how to play chess had four principles for chess openings, which is: occupy the centre, control the centre, develop your pieces and challenge your opponent. I think I can stop there. But those are the principles. So since the topic here is how to understand what Putin is doing, I think that’s a good framework already. First, we should not engage in mirror imaging, to think that he thinks like we would think. He’s got different goals, a different framework, a different paradigm, different challenges, different interests, so his perspective is different. We think, many people say the economy’s a mess and he can’t sustain this. Well, it doesn’t hit him. It only hits the people. He tries to get a position where he then has options and leverage, and then where there are opportunities, he’ll take advantage of it. Where there’s resistance...he can adjust. Where there’s no resistance, he’ll keep going. So much of the discussion about Ukraine is nonsensical, about there’s no military solution, we can’t arm, we can’t add, we don’t want to militarize the conflict or whatever people say about it. It’s just crazy. There is a military conflict going on. There will be a military solution. The question is: what will it look like? So military force matters and we shouldn’t shy away from dealing with it. [...]

This is a difference in thinking between Putin and the rest of us. Not having an outcome is just fine with him. The process of...creating instability, creating conflict creates opportunity.

Panel Discussion: Redefining U.S. Strategy towards Russia and Ukraine

Washington, D.C., USA / October 25, 2016

The principle reason why people are not doing more to support Ukraine is because of Russia. It is a calculation, or a fear, or a sentiment that the more we do the more we run the risk of being in a confrontation with Russia, and we don’t want that confrontation so we won’t do X, Y or Z. And then, Russia understands that and so it just keeps doing what it’s doing, knowing that no one is going to really try to stop them in some way.

/by Nataliya Gumenyuk

/translated by Sofia Fedeczko