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Diplomacy in Action

Latest Developments on Ukraine Negotiations

Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, U.S. Department of State
The Washington Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
April 13, 2018

Date: 04/13/2018 Description: Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, U.S. Department of State, briefs foreign media at the Washington Foreign Press Center on the Latest Developments on Ukraine Negotiations. - State Dept Image MODERATOR: Okay, good morning, everyone. Thank you for being here. Welcome to the Washington Foreign Press Center. I am Cheryl Neely, the media relations officer for Europe. We’re pleased to have you and our special guest here to update today on negotiations regarding Ukraine. Before I introduce the speaker, I’d like to go over the ground rules. The briefing is on the record, off video camera. Still photography is okay and recording is okay. And please remember to silence or turn off your cell phones. Thank you.

All right. We have with us today Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. He was appointed to his position in July of 2017. He is a leading expert in U.S. foreign and national security policy with 30 years of experience in a variety of government, academic, and private sector capacities. Your – the complete bio was linked in your invitation, and it’s also available on the website, as well as we have copies at the front. So we will open it up to Ambassador Volker, and then when he finishes his remarks, I’ll come back and we’ll take Q&A. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Great, thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for coming out. It’s a busy news week, so I appreciate your taking a little time for Ukraine. I just thought that it would be useful to talk a little bit about where we are with the conflict in eastern Ukraine since sometime it flares up and then it’s sort of below the headlines again and then it flares up again, and I just wanted to give a little perspective on it.

The first thing that I’d want to say is the humanitarian situation facing Ukrainian citizens in the Donbas, both sides of the line of conflict, is really intolerable. There are thousands of people affected by this conflict, if not millions, every day. Over 10,300 people have been killed as a result of the conflict on both sides of the line. Over 24,000 people have been wounded. We have well over a million, probably closer to 2 million, displaced persons. And you have impacts of the ongoing conflict all the time. There are ceasefire violations that take place every night. There’s the use of rockets, snipers, mortars. There are occasional shutoffs – water, electricity, cell phone service has been an issue. The normal economy of the region has been completely disrupted. There are horrendous environmental consequences from the conflict, and these threaten to get much worse.

And there has really been no material change in what’s happening on the ground for years now, we're talking really since the end of 2014 until now. So it’s three and a half years at least of an ongoing conflict, a hot war – not a frozen conflict, a hot war – with people dying and people fighting, and it really needs to be brought to an end for the benefit of the people that live there. It is a conflict that has been brought to them, not one that anyone is asking for or anyone wants to see continue.

It is not an indigenous conflict in Ukraine. It’s not a civil war. It’s not an ethnic conflict. It’s the result of Russia invading and occupying territory in Ukraine. You all know that they have taken Crimea and claim to have annexed Crimea. The case of eastern Ukraine, they have set up two people’s republics, they call them – so-called Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic, entities that have no place under the Ukrainian constitution and entities that were not created and chosen by people there.

There is a peace agreement, which is in some ways ironic because there isn’t peace. But there is a peace agreement, the Minsk agreements, in which there is a pathway. There is a pathway to political reforms, and steps that the Ukrainians are prepared to take, and a pathway to restoring the territory to Ukrainian sovereignty, Ukrainian territorial integrity. Unfortunately, this has not been implemented. There has never been a period of a sustained ceasefire. There has not been security.

And I should add that the conflict is driven clearly by Russian forces. There is 100 percent command and control by Russia of the military forces in the east, and also of the political entities. So it is a conflict that Russia has chosen to inflict on this territory, and it has continued up until this point. So the humanitarian costs are extreme.

The – Russia’s responsibility is important here, because it is a signatory to the Minsk agreements. It is a part of the Normandy process, along with Germany and France and Ukraine, that has talked about a resolution, but in reality, the actions on the ground have undercut the agreements and undercut the diplomatic efforts. So it is really important that Russia make a serious decision, a concrete decision, a real decision to bring about peace. I think that one can only say that peace is in Russia’s hands. Everyone else wants there to be peace.

And to that end, and third, we have been engaged – we, the United States have been engaged – in diplomatic efforts for some time, working with France and Germany, working with Ukraine, coordinating with NATO allies, with Canada, with the UK, with the EU, with the OSCE, all aimed at putting together how – putting together the package that would allow peace to be established, Minsk agreements to be implemented, and the conflict finally to be brought to an end.

And that would involve the introduction of a UN-mandated peacekeeping force. This would be on the basis of voluntary national contributions, but it would be a UN-mandated peacekeeping force, and it would be able to assure security in the territory that is now occupied by Russia, so Russia would be able to withdraw its forces but without chaos, without escalating the conflict, without a failure to implement the Minsk agreements. Instead, you would have a UN-mandated force come in, it would establish security; it would create the conditions for holding local elections, which is part of the Minsk agreements; it would maintain security while a special status for this territory under Ukraine’s constitution is implemented, while amnesty is implemented for people who committed crimes as part of the conflict, so that all of the aspects of the Minsk agreements would be implemented. And at the end of that, you would see the territory restored to Ukraine’s control. That is a proposal that I think works – should work for everyone. It is something that is entirely consistent with the Minsk agreements and is actually a vehicle for moving forward with their full implementation.

We have discussed this in negotiations with Russia over the course of four different meetings – in August, October, November, and January. We are looking forward to hearing from Russia based on the discussions that we had at our last meeting, which was in January. Thus far, it’s been over three months. We have not heard anything back from Russia to address this concept and this proposal in a serious way. We hope that Russia is willing to do that.

As you all know, the context of relations with Russia right now is fraught. It’s one of the most difficult times that I think any of us have seen for a long time. If there is one issue, though, that I think is ripe to be solved, it could be this one, and we hope that Russia is willing to take those steps.

So I will pause there, and turn it to our moderator to moderate questions, and I think we’ve got about 20 minutes or so for questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you, Ambassador. So I just want to remind everybody, please wait for the microphone before you ask your question because we are making a transcript. Also, for the same reason, please make sure to identify both your name and your outlet when you ask a question, and we may take some questions from our journalists in New York via the DVC.

Great. I think, Dmitry, you had your hand up first?

QUESTION: Dmitry Kirsanov of TASS. Mr. Ambassador, talking to reporters after your latest meeting with Vladislav Surkov in January, you sounded quite optimistic. And I’m not trying to put any words into your mouth. If I may quote you, you said that “the Russian side was receptive” to several key points you raised, that you heard some “positive reactions.” And now you are saying, as far as I understand it, that essentially there was no – any further interaction with Surkov on that. I just wanted to ask you to clarify if a new meeting with your Russian counterpart has been set yet. That’s point one.

And secondly, could you clarify whether your appointment – and this is, I think, is flowing from a bit of a confusion based on your interview with Politico some time ago – whether your appointment was temporary or not? You said you’re not drawing a salary as far as I understand. So it is a term appointment? Are you leaving anytime soon or not? Again, I’m not trying to push you into that direction. Have you had any contacts with Secretary of State-designate Pompeo about that? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: So – yes, thank you. So first, as you said correctly, I thought that the discussions that we had in January were constructive, and at that time, my Russian counterpart undertook to put thoughts on paper and to come back to us when he was ready to seek a further meeting. That has not happened yet. And so I think all of us had some understanding that in the run-up to the Russian elections, and now with the installation of a new government still yet to come, understandable that there is some delay in this. But that is the state of play.

And yes, I did have a chance to discuss Ukraine with Secretary-designate Pompeo a couple of times, and he’s quite satisfied with where we are at the moment. And concerning my own position, it is not a temporary position. It’s one that I am doing on a voluntary basis while still doing other activities, and one that I’m prepared to continue.

MODERATOR: Great. We’ll go to – here and then we’ll go to New York after that.

QUESTION: Hello, my name is Iaroslav Dovgopol. I’m working with Ukrainian news agency UkrInform. My question is about the political situation. Recently, President Trump said on Twitter that U.S.-Russia relationship is worse now than it has ever been, even during the Cold War. How does it impact on your activity as to – on the prospect of further negotiations?

And the second question: Could you please detailize what about your contact with France and Germany? You just mentioned a couple words about it. Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Sure. Let me start with that and come back. So from the beginning, from when I was first appointed in July, and throughout the time period since then, we’ve made a consistent and conscientious effort to stay very closely coordinated with France and Germany. We’re not trying to substitute for the Normandy process, we’re not trying to overtake it, and we’re not trying to formally become a part of it. We want to be coherent and consistent and supportive of that process. The goal here is to see the Minsk agreements fully implemented, and if the U.S. engagement can be helpful to that, that’s what we’re trying to do.

Practically speaking, I’ve had meetings with them in New York, in Paris, in Washington, in Berlin, we’ve done secure video conferences, we’ve done phone calls, we’ve met in Munich. So we’ve really worked at making sure we are in touch. In fact, I had a briefing with EU representatives earlier this week and specifically discussed again with France and Germany together where we are.

So that’s very important. The – President Trump has it exactly right, of course. We are at a low point in U.S.-Russia relations, and I don’t think it is where anyone wants it to be. We would like to be in a better situation. But the facts are as they are, and a lot of that is due to Russia’s own actions. It is concerning, because the risks of escalation are in front of us. We can see those risks, and it’s not anything anyone wants. But it is important that we see some change in Russia’s positions.

As for how it affects my efforts, you know the full range of issues on which there are disagreements, including about Syria, about chemical weapons, about nuclear issues, about INF issues, about diplomatic personnel, and so forth. We also fundamentally have a different view over Russia’s occupation of some of its neighboring countries. But this is one where, at least on paper, there is a basis on which we could potentially make progress. Russia, by signing the Minsk agreements, has affirmed Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. It says that it wants to protect Russian-speaking people, and these are things that we completely agree on. We want to protect people, all people – Ukrainian, Tartar, Russian, whatever. And we do want to see the restoration of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. So if there is a way in which we can advance that and accomplish those objectives, then this might be an area where we could actually make progress.

MODERATOR: Okay, thank you. Let’s go to New York. Please state your name and outlet.

QUESTION: Hello, there. My name is Kateryna Lisunova, I’m journalist of Ukrainian TV channel Pryamiy. I’m working permanently in United Nations. So if coming back to peacekeepers, I have two questions. I was speaking with now the security – national security advisor of Trump, John Bolton. So he’s absolutely against this idea of peacekeeper being mission in Ukraine. Have you been spoken with him about that already, and will it possibly have any problems with that if one of the administration of Trump having other vision of resolving this problem and it is not the peacekeeping mission?

And the second question is, why exactly John Bolton thinking that peacekeeping mission is not the way to resolve the problem. He’s telling that any kind of peacekeeping mission which will be good for Ukraine will be vetoed by Russians. So from that point, other more theoretical question is: Do you see in the future a possibility to remove the veto from Russians? Because there is some statements about that. There were statements about trying to do that from Poroshenko a few hours ago. So two questions about peacekeeping mission.

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Thank you. I have not had an opportunity to discuss this with John Bolton since he has become the national security advisor. It’s only this week. I do agree with him that a number of UN peacekeeping missions have been very expensive, they’ve gone on a long time, and they’ve served to create a frozen conflict rather than to solve a conflict. So I think those are very valid concerns.

What we’re talking about in the case of eastern Ukraine is somewhat different from that. This is – it would not be a traditional UN peacekeeping operation run through the UN system. It would be on the basis of voluntary contributions by nations, and it would only be there as a transition mechanism to go from the current situation of Russian control to a situation of Ukrainian control. And so it would be a transition mechanism.

And thirdly, you would only do this if Russia is in agreement. No one is suggesting that this is going to be imposed on anyone. Russia would need to see this as a constructive vehicle for implementing the Minsk agreements. So there’s no – the idea of a Russian veto doesn’t even come up, because we’re not even going to be proposing it unless we’re already in agreement with Russia. So I think it’s a very different kind of peacekeeping arrangement that we’re talking about.

MODERATOR: I saw Dmytri’s hand a little while ago.

QUESTION: Thank you very much. Dmytri Anopchenko, a Ukrainian reporter working here in Washington. Sir, two short questions please. Firstly, according to the information from Kyiv, you possibly will visit Ukraine at the end of April, beginning of May. Can you just share your plans? Can you just share the information about that visit?

And secondly, we are still in the process of receiving the lethal arms from America. I know it’s a road plan, I know it’s a road map. So can you share on which stage are we right now? And do you have any concerns, or do you have any ideas how the receiving of these lethal weapons, speaking about the Javelins for example, will influence on your work on peace process? So do you expect any moves to better or worse?

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: All right. So first off on plans, we’ve been working the dates and it looks like it’s going to be toward the middle of May, and I am planning both to visit the eastern part of Ukraine as well as Kyiv again.

On the support for Ukraine’s defense capabilities, it’s very important to keep this in the context that it is, which is Ukraine is having to defend itself on its own territory. Every day, there are weapons fired at Ukrainian forces inside Ukraine’s own territory. They lose, on average, a soldier or two a week. This year – you have a handout somewhere that gives the exact numbers – but this year we’ve seen well over a hundred Ukrainian soldiers killed. We’ve seen – I believe the number is 28 civilians killed through this fighting. So this is a traumatic thing affecting a country, and it is perfectly legitimate for a country to seek to defend itself on its own territory.

In that context, there are some gaps in Ukrainian defense capabilities, and we’re very happy to try to help fill those gaps in its defenses. And there are some things where it’s important to reinforce those defense capabilities so that the conflict doesn’t get worse. And what I think the delivery of some of these defensive arms to Ukraine demonstrates is that the cost of escalating the conflict by Russia will only continue to grow. So it – we hope that that is clear to Russia that it’s just not worth it, that escalating the conflict is not the direction to go in. We should be instead trying to end the conflict and bring about peace.

So I think having a stronger Ukrainian defensive capability helps in the process of then negotiating towards a final settlement.


QUESTION: Oleg Merkulov, Vesti media group from Riga, Latvia. So the resistance in Donbas clearly could not go without the support of local population. So they must have had some concerns at the beginning of all these events. So what concerns do you think local population had at the beginning of events, and was not one of the concerns the status of Russian language in eastern Ukraine?

The reason for my question is that in Latvia, after the breakup of Soviet Union, everybody was promised equal rights and the status of languages, and right now Russian language is being basically outlawed and even the education in Russian language is being eliminated as we speak.

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: So you are right to say that there were concerns by people in eastern Ukraine about the policies and politics in Kyiv, or differences prior to the war. That itself did not lead to a war – that there have been differences in the past, they’ve been addressed politically. What happened, as we all recall, in early 2014, is that Russia put in intelligence forces, special forces, fomented insurrection, reinforced those with military equipment and military officers, and created a conflict. That is very different from having concerns.

Those concerns are legitimate and still should be addressed. I think that there is a – there is a lot of context in Europe for protecting and preserving the rights of minorities. Language, education, identity, through the OSCE, through EU mechanisms, EU human rights – there’s an established practice there. And that should be respected and implemented everywhere in Europe, and I would – and including in Ukraine.

So there are issues to address. That is not a justification for conflict. It is not the origin or the source of the conflict. And the best way to get those addressed is to end the conflict, so that there can be a political reintegration of these territories and respect for those kinds of rights.

MODERATOR: Great. There was a hand back here? Oh. Yeah.

QUESTION: Thank you. Oksana Bedratenko from Voice of America, Ukrainian Service. I wanted to ask: We have seen reports recently about the Russian tanks moving towards the eastern border of Ukraine. What do you make of these recent military moves?

And also the second question, if I might: The Georgian Government unveiled the new step for the future strategy on the Abkhazia and South Ossetia regions. What is your opinion on that?

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Right. So let’s start with Ukraine. We have seen over four years a steady Russian military support and leadership of the forces fighting in the east. And that has involved tanks, mortars, infantry, electronic warfare – everything you can imagine. And because this is over a four-year period, there has frequently been a need for changing out of troops and equipment. Rotations of forces, replacement of equipment, and so forth.

I don’t at this point believe there’s anything dramatically new in what we’re seeing from Russia. I don’t think that the dynamics of the conflict have been significantly altered in the last three and a half years. That said, the fact of continued Russian military engagement and support in the east fighting against Ukrainian forces on Ukrainian territory is the entire problem that we’re talking about here and what we hope to try to resolve.

Concerning Georgia’s outreach, it’s an interesting contrast, because I think that as we were saying with eastern Ukraine, the reaching out, the reconciliation, the inclusion, the respect for minorities, the respect for rights of people is a critical part of reintegration, and something that I think is important for Ukraine’s future. And I think the Georgian Government, with its package of measures, seems to be trying to do that in similar cases where Russia has taken territory in Georgia, occupies that territory. In the case of – Georgia[*] has also recognized these territories as independent states, something that very few others in the world would recognize. But it is an effort to try to enfranchise and reach and support the populations of these territories, because Georgia fundamentally continues to view them, as do all of we, as part of Georgia’s sovereign territory.

So I think it’s a constructive step to work on those people-to-people connections. And frankly, let me just add too, always think of this from the perspective of the people living there. What is it that they can and can’t do to – if you’re living in eastern Ukraine, to collect your pension? You’re entitled to a Ukrainian Government pension if you’re a certain age. But the Ukrainian Government doesn’t have the ability to distribute that to you, so you have to cross the line of conflict, or some other way travel to the rest of Ukrainian territory to collect it – a very dangerous thing to do and a very – a troubling thing to do.

You have – I saw a picture the other day in Georgia where the Russians have moved the practical line of control of South Ossetia so that a family can no longer reach the gravesite of one of their relatives. It’s just on the other side of the fence. It’s those sorts of things that are really – they’re troubling really from a human point of view as to what people are having to live through there, and the best thing is to bring about peace and to try to support the reintegration of territory so people can live normal lives again.

MODERATOR: Do we have time for two more?


MODERATOR: Okay. Nikolay and then --

QUESTION: Ambassador Volker, we have the list of --

MODERATOR: I’m sorry, could you – Nikolay, just state your name and outlet.

QUESTION: Nikolay Zimin, Russian news agency Interfax. We have the list of the bad actions from the part of Russia. And what about the opposite side? Do you consider the Ukrainian approach to the conflict and the process as a impeccable, no mistakes from their part? Thank you.

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Thank you. No, I wouldn’t say that it’s impeccable or no mistakes. In fact, we saw early on in the conflict the Ukrainian forces were rather disorganized, you saw some private militias, you saw some very bad behavior at that time. But what we’ve seen over time, first off, all of this is taking place on Ukrainian territory. So Ukraine is acting inside its own borders to try to establish security and restore government control, as any country would do if it were defending its own territory.

The second is that the professionalism with which Ukraine is doing this has steadily increased since the worst days of 2014. We’ve seen a tremendous improvement in the training of Ukrainian military forces, the integration of those forces, the command and control of those forces, and the conduct of those forces in the course of the conflict. So I would not say it’s perfect, but I’d say there has been tremendous progress and movement in the right direction.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll finish with Yana. Please state your name and outlet.

QUESTION: Yana Slyesarchuks, Ukrainian TV channel 1+1. Talking about situation in Syria, recent situation, expected U.S.-led strike on Syria. So many people in Ukraine and driven out are gravely concerned that this situation can have backlash on Ukraine. Do you have any thoughts and comments? How would you react if such a backlash could be, and what could be such a backlash?

AMBASSADOR VOLKER: I think the context overall is important, and as was pointed out earlier, the context now of relations with Russia is very fraught, very dangerous. And so that is something that we need to bear in mind. On the substance of it, however, I think these issues do stand on their own merits rather differently. We have some very grave issues to handle in Syria, and the risks there are very great. We also have the issues that we’ve been talking about in Ukraine, but there is at least prospect there where you can see how we could agree, and if so, I think we should make every effort to do so. We are not there yet, and it could be that this context makes it difficult, but we have to keep the door open to be willing to try and willing to reach an agreement if possible.

Thank you very much.

MODERATOR: All right. Thank you so much, Ambassador. With that, we conclude the briefing, and we thank you so much for coming today.

[*] Russia