MODERATOR: Hello and welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive virtual press briefing platform. I’m delighted to welcome participants joining us today from across Europe and around the globe. Today we’ll be speaking with Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. representative for Ukraine negotiations.
Before I turn it over to Ambassador Volker for some opening remarks, I’d like to make a few comments on procedures for questions. You can start submitting your questions now in the “Questions” tab at the top of your screen. If you see someone else ask a question you would also like us to answer, you can up-vote it by clicking the like-button to the right of that question. We will try to answer as many as we can, but our time is limited today, so please vote to indicate the questions you would most like us to cover. If you would like to receive a transcript of today’s briefing and links to broadcast-quality audio and video files, please fill out the short survey by clicking on the “Polls” tab at the top of the event page.
With that, let’s get started. Ambassador Volker, thank you for joining us today, and I’ll turn it over to you for some opening remarks.
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here. I had the honor of being in Ukraine on Monday last week for the inauguration of President Zelenskyy, part of a U.S. presidential delegation that was led by the Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, and we were joined also by the EU Ambassador – United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and also Senator Ron Johnson.
We were thrilled with the quality of the election in Ukraine. It was a free and fair election. We were impressed with the peaceful transition of power from one incumbent to a new elected president. And we continue to stand by Ukraine in its development of its democracy, its economy, its security, and of course its sovereignty and territorial integrity. President Zelenskyy ran a campaign promising far-reaching reform in Ukraine that clearly was welcomed by many of the people. He received 73 percent of the vote. And that is something that we, the United States, also strongly support.
Ukraine needs to go through thoroughgoing reform and particularly to fight corruption in order to strengthen its economy to be a welcoming place for foreign investment and to become the kind of country that is producing well-being for its citizens and is a magnet for the regions that Russia has currently taken, with the hope that they can be peacefully reintegrated into the rest of Ukraine again.
With that, I’d be very happy to take questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Our first question was submitted by Andriy Tsaplienko from 1+1 in Ukraine: How does the war in Donbas affect Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic perspectives, given the presidency of Zelenskyy? Would there be a chance to join the NATO alliance if the ongoing war in eastern Ukraine does not end in the coming decades?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, several things about that. First off, all of us in the United States and in Europe are deeply concerned about the ongoing conflict. It is a humanitarian tragedy for the people of the Donbas. They need as much support and assistance as can be delivered by the Ukrainian Government and by the international community. And all of this is happening because of Russia’s invasion and occupation and continued fighting inside Ukraine, and Ukrainians are still killed on an average of every week, which is a terrible tragedy. So we are all concerned about solving that crisis, that war.
As far as Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations goes, we strongly stand behind Ukraine’s aspirations. It has a lot of work to do in every sector, whether it’s in the strengthening of democratic institutions, in fighting corruption, in the economy, and in the case of NATO, also building interoperability and reforming the defense sector and contributing to common security in Europe as a whole.
With that, of course, the fact that Russia occupies part of Ukraine and there is fighting going on in Ukraine is a concern, and countries would not – countries in NATO would not want to be taking on a conflict. At the same time, I think it provides the wrong message to Russia that all it has to do is attack a country, and that country can no longer be considered for NATO membership. I think we want to make clear that we continue to support the commitment made in 2008 in Bucharest that Ukraine will one day be a member of NATO. We want to work together with Ukraine to address all of the challenges that it faces to make it as good a position as possible for Ukraine, and we hope that when NATO is again ready to look at further enlargement that Ukraine will also be ready.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Vladmir Ermakov at Interfax: Are you planning to have contacts with Russia in the near future? And what issues need to be discussed?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Thank you for the question. Yes, yes I would like to have contact with Russia in the near future. I don’t know what form that will take at the moment. We have just gotten through the presidential election in Ukraine. We’ve immediately launched into a parliamentary election campaign. And so far, in contacts we had earlier this year, the Russians made clear that they did not see an opportunity for productive discussions during the course of the presidential campaign. We’ll have to see how it stands now during the course of this parliamentary campaign and when an appropriate time would be to meet and to follow up.
As far as the topics go, of course the main one is the war in the Donbas. We want to make sure that we are putting on the table all of the issues about Minsk implementation, starting with the ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, the disarming of the illegal armed groups, and creating a situation of security in the Donbas so that additional political steps that are also part of Minsk can be taken. And these include amnesty for people who’ve committed crimes as part of the conflict, implementing a special status for the region under Ukraine’s constitution, holding local elections, and of course eventually the reintegration, the peaceful reintegration, of this territory with the rest of Ukraine. Those are the topics to discuss.
Russia has a lot that it needs to do to implement the Minsk agreements. So far, it has not. Ukraine also has its responsibilities, and we would want to see where we stand and whether we can make progress.
MODERATOR: Our next question from Sergey Strokan at Kommersant in Russia: What should be done to revise the Minsk process, and what realistic forms of pressure could the U.S. put on Ukraine to get it to comply with its responsibilities under the Minsk accords?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, Ukraine has passed legislation that would provide amnesty for people who committed crimes as part of the conflict. It has passed legislation that would provide for special status. It has held elections throughout the rest of Ukraine and would do so in the Donbas as well if we were able to access the territory.
Unfortunately, the problem with Minsk implementation is Russia’s continued occupation of Eastern Ukraine and the ongoing fighting there, so it’s impossible for Ukraine to go any further than it already has.
Meanwhile, Russia has yet to fully implement a ceasefire, to withdraw its forces, the foreign forces that are in Ukraine, to support the disbanding of the illegal armed groups that are there, to disband the people’s republics that are there, which have no place under Ukraine’s constitution and are not part of the Minsk agreements. So there’s a lot that Russia has to do to stop the war in Ukraine so that we can get on with the other aspects of full implementation of Minsk. It’s very much what we want to do.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Patrick Tucker at Defense One here in the United States: What are your concerns about the Russian military buildup on the Crimean peninsula, both in terms of the future of the Black Sea and the conflict in Ukraine? What does that imply for the future of restoring Crimea to Ukraine?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well first off, let me be clear: The United States does not and will not recognize Crimea’s claim to annexation by Russia. We have put in place under Secretary Pompeo a long-term policy of refusing to recognize this, and we have sanctions in place as a result, and that’s not going to change.
Now, Russia, of course, physically controls the territory of Crimea, and it’s not a surprise that they have increased their military deployments in that area as well. But as far as the situation in Ukraine or the situation in the Black Sea more broadly, Russia is already there. It has a Black Sea coastline; it has a very powerful military. It has deployed that military inside Russian territory – recognized Russian territory – surrounding Ukraine. And the additional deployments in Crimea don’t make a fundamental change to that large Russian presence that’s already there.
MODERATOR: Our next question from Andrei Sitov at the TASS News Agency in Russia: You highly praised former President Poroshenko before the elections and even visited a U.S. Navy ship with him. But the Ukrainians have rejected him and his policies. Will this be reflected in the U.S. approach to Kyiv?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, thank you for your question, and I would repeat today what I said then, which is that President Poroshenko did a tremendous job on reform in Ukraine, more in the four years that he was president than in the preceding 20 years. It’s also true we support democracy. We support free and fair elections and the rights of the Ukrainian people to choose their leaders, and they voted for more. They wanted more reform, more change, more rapid change, a new generation, and so with that they voted for President Zelenskyy. And just as we worked very closely together with the previous president and government in Ukraine, we intend to work very closely with President Zelenskyy and his team on furthering that same agenda of reform and progress in development of Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Petr Kozlov at BBC News Russian: Viktor Medvedchuk quit the Minsk negotiations process, where he was representing the Ukraine. What is your reaction? Have you discussed with President Zelenskyy who is going to be his representative?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Thank you. I have not discussed with President Zelenskyy who his choices are. I do support, however, his right to make those choices. Having been elected as president, it is his responsibility to oversee Ukraine’s participation in the Minsk process and aiming at having the territory restored to Ukraine. And it is his choice who he wants to be his representatives, and we will work with him and those individuals as much as we can.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Natalia Churikova at RFE/RL: How will the U.S. react to Russia giving passports to Ukraine’s citizens in occupied Donbas? The UN court declared that the Ukrainian sailors detained by the Russian authorities must be released. How can this decision be enforced?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: First off, on the sailors, we completely support the court decision. There is no legal reason for Russia to continue to hold these sailors. They were attacked illegally in international waters. They were taken illegally to Russia. They should be treated as members of a foreign government’s military forces. There is no basis to hold them inside Russia, and we do urge their immediate release. The courts have also ruled in that direction.
Russia has made clear it has no intention of doing that, which is a shame for those people and for their families, and we do hope that Russia has a change of heart on this. That being said, there’s no force that’s going to be applied to Russia to make them follow the rule of law and to make them follow this court decision, but it is our very clear position that they need to release these sailors.
The first part of the question was about —
MODERATOR: Was about the – a reaction to Russia’s plans to give passports to —
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Right. Well, first off, that’s a very provocative step for Russia to take to go forward and say we will give passports, Russian passports, to the citizens of another country. That being said, I don’t think Ukrainians are going to be rushing to take up these passports. They are suffering a lot under Russia’s occupation in the Donbas as it is. And we also will be looking at whether we are in a position to identify and not recognize those passports, as we do in the case of passports issued in Crimea already.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Andriy Tsaplienko at 1+1 in Ukraine: Will the U.S. continue to supply lethal weapons to Ukraine, and are there any particular systems on the table?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Thank you again for the questions. Ukraine, as any other country in the world, has a right to self-defense. That is a right enshrined in the UN Charter. For some reason, there was a decision here in a previous administration not to help Ukraine with its defensive capabilities, at least lethal defensive capabilities. That is something that has now been lifted, and the United States is prepared to work with Ukraine, just as we do with countries around the world in supporting their legitimate defense needs.
As you know, we’ve provided foreign military financing approved by the Congress. That has produced support for systems such as anti-tank systems and anti-sniper systems. And just as we do with many countries, we’ll be consulting with Ukraine about what their legitimate needs are. We will be looking at what capabilities we can help provide. We also are open to foreign military sales, that is to say, Ukraine purchasing military equipment from the United States.
And this is all part of the normal course of business for a country developing its own defensive capabilities. And in Ukraine’s case, it is particularly important because it is under attack every day, and so it has a desperate need to strengthen these defensive capabilities and prevent any further loss of territory, hold the line, and hopefully create the conditions where peace can again be negotiated.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Konstantin Vasilkevitch at the 2000 Weekly Newspaper in Ukraine: You said that Donbas residents are Ukrainian citizens. What should Ukraine do to support them? Is there any feasible interaction now between the Ukrainian authorities and authorities in the so-called DPR and LPR in order to help the people who live under their control?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, again, thank you for that question. I believe that assisting the people in the Donbas and providing humanitarian relief to them is one of the most important tasks that needs to be addressed by both the Ukrainian Government and the international community more broadly.
Many things can be done – everything from mine clearance in areas where Ukraine actually has control, to improving the safety of boundary crossings between the occupied area and the rest of Ukraine, facilitating the delivery of pensions to those who are unable to collect them themselves, making sure that services are connected and continuing – things like electricity and phone service, gas, water, ensuring the safety of these as much as possible. These are all things where, with the support of international humanitarian organizations, I believe more can be done.
I was heartened to see that President Zelenskyy talked about this as well, and I hope that through the course of parliamentary elections and establishing a government after those elections, that there will be more opportunities from the Ukrainian side to reach out to them.
MODERATOR: Another question from Andrei Sitov at the TASS News Agency: On his recent visit to Russia, Secretary Pompeo did not raise the subject of Ukraine at all. How do you explain this lack of interest? Have you received or asked for new instructions from the Secretary? Do you have a free hand on this?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well thank you very much. First off, the Secretary did raise it with Foreign Minister Lavrov. He did not bring it up in the meeting with President Putin. The purpose of these meetings – as you know, the relationship with Russia is in extremely difficult circumstances right now – he wanted to make a particularly focused discussion about arms control and about the situation in Iran and in Venezuela. And he did raise the issue of Ukraine with Foreign Minister Lavrov. It is also an important priority for the United States, and thank you very much for the question. I am meeting with Secretary Pompeo immediately after this briefing, and we are very much in alignment about where U.S. strategy lies.
MODERATOR: Our next question – there’s several questions in here from Roman Olearchyk at the Financial Times: Did you advise President Zelenskyy not to appoint Andrey Bogdan? Are there concerns about this and Kolomoisky’s influence or recommendations to Zelenskyy, for example, on default on foreign debt? Does the Trump administration share Rudy Giuliani’s concern about Mr. Zelenskyy’s entourage, and what are your impressions of President Zelenskyy in general?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Thank you very much for the question. First off, we were very impressed with President Zelenskyy’s stated commitment to reform and thoroughgoing reform in Ukraine, fighting corruption, creating a Ukrainian leadership that serves the interests of the people of Ukraine. He was very clear about that in the discussions the U.S. delegation had with him during the course of the inauguration.
During the course of our meetings with President Zelenskyy, we also made clear that he needs to pay close attention to his own credibility and his own ability to carry out those tasks, that he – the Ukrainian voters who voted for him, 73 percent of the voters, now have very high expectations. And so with that in mind, he should pay attention to what image he conveys, what messages he conveys, how he gets started in business.
We did not give any specific advice about individuals because we are focused on the principles of governance and on the policies that he executes. And with President Zelenskyy’s stated commitment to reform in Ukraine, fighting corruption, reforming the justice system, rule of law, we fully support those principles and those policies and look forward to continuing to work with him.
MODERATOR: Our next question from the Kyiv Post: The U.S. Senate proposes increasing its defense aid to Kyiv in the fiscal year 2020 to $300 million, and particularly to provide Ukraine with Shipwreck missiles and coastal defense systems. Can you please specify the names of the weapons that the U.S. intends to send to Ukraine next year?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: I wish I could, but unfortunately, I do not know the names of the specific systems. I do know that the process here is one where the Congress appropriates the funding, the Pentagon sits down Ukrainian defense leadership, we talk through exactly what the needs are, how they should be addressed and what systems are best in doing so. I don’t have any specific systems to talk about today.
MODERATOR: Our next question is from Dmytro Shkurko at the National News Agency of Ukraine: It is clear that Zelenskyy is trying to stop the war in Donbas. There’s a public discussion inside Ukraine about, quote/unquote, ‘redlines.’ From the U.S. perspective, what are the redlines to continue supporting Ukraine and maintain sanctions against Russia?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, I think the most important redline is continued efforts to implement the Minsk agreements. This means, to begin with, a ceasefire, a withdrawal of heavy weapons, removal of foreign forces – and Russia continues to maintain substantial forces there – a removal of illegal armed groups which are occupying the Donbas right now, and proceeding with creating security for all the people and then implementing the political aspects of Minsk. Things that would go against that would be any recognition of the seizure of this territory by Russia, or that it is in some way independent. Autonomy is not a part of the Minsk agreements; it is a special status, and that is something to be developed still, but it is not full autonomy. And a continued presence of foreign forces on Ukrainian territory would also be a redline.
So these are all things that I think are part of the Minsk agreements. There’s nothing new that needs to be added here, but what we do need to see is that it is implemented.
MODERATOR: I think we have time for two last quick questions. From Petr Kozlov at BBC News Russian: When is the next Volker-Surkov meeting going to take place, and where? And when President Zelenskyy is ready to – when is President Zelenskyy going to be ready to join the Normandy Format? When is the next meeting of the format participants going to take place?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: We addressed these questions a little bit earlier in the call, but just to come back – so we will have some initial contacts with Russia to see whether now is the right time for getting together to talk about Minsk implementation and where we can go from here. Prior to the completion of the presidential election, Russia had indicated that it was not prepared at that moment. We do hope that there will be an opportunity ahead, but it may be after the parliamentary elections. We’ll have to see, and we will be in touch with Russia about that.
As far as the Normandy Format goes, that is a process led by France and Germany. We fully support it; we track it very closely. They have had discussions about the possibility of a Normandy Format meeting possibly as soon as July. I don’t think anything yet has been scheduled. And that would, of course, require agreement not only by Ukraine but also by Russia.
MODERATOR: We’re going to get in one more question quickly, coming from Hungary: Is there any progress in NATO to get Hungary to lift its veto for conducting meetings of the NATO-Ukraine Commission?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Unfortunately, there has not been any progress on that to date. I do hope that with the election of President Zelenskyy – and let me remind that he is a native Russian-language speaker who also speaks Ukrainian – that there needs to be an agreement between Hungary and Ukraine on how to deal with the question of national minorities, the rights of those minorities to speak and to have education in their own language, and at the same time to ensure that the citizens of Ukraine, all of them, also learn and use Ukrainian as part of their communications in their official language in the country.
That needs to be resolved. I think that Hungary is making a mistake by using NATO as a tool to try to put pressure on this issue. Ukraine faces important external challenges – the attack, the invasion, the occupation by Russia. That is something that should be of concern to every NATO ally, including Hungary, and blocking high-level meetings between NATO and Ukraine I believe is a mistake, even while I support the notion of dialogue and resolution of the issues concerning the Hungarian minority’s use of their language.
MODERATOR: Any closing thoughts before we wrap up the program for today, sir?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: As always, I want to come back one more time to the point of the people of the Donbas. They are Ukrainian citizens. They are suffering tremendously as a result of Russia’s invasion and occupation. They need humanitarian support. We are pleased that President Zelenskyy has already spoken about this issue. I look forward to working with him and his team on reform and development in Ukraine, on Minsk implementation, on strengthening security for Ukraine, and raising the humanitarian standards for the people of the Donbas, and indeed, the well-being of all the people of Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Unfortunately, that is all the time that we have for today. So thank you again for your questions to our participants, and thank you, Ambassador Volker, for joining us today.
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Thank you again for your participation, and we hope you can join us for another briefing again soon.