MODERATOR: Welcome to LiveAtState, the State Department’s interactive virtual press briefing platform. I’m delighted to welcome participants joining us today from around Europe and across the globe. Today we’ll be speaking with Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, about the conflict in Ukraine and the status of negotiations five years on from Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea.
Before I turn it over to Ambassador Volker for some opening remarks, I would 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. Please feel free to leave questions in English, Russian, or French, and our moderators will translate as necessary. If you see someone else ask a question that you would also like us to answer, you can up-vote it by clicking on the like button to the right of that question. We will try to answer as many as we can, but our time is limited, so please vote to indicate the questions you’d 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.
So 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: Great. Well, thank you very much; I’m delighted to be here. As you noted in your introduction, today marks the fifth anniversary of Russia’s claimed annexation of Crimea. This is a claim that the United States does not recognize; the European Union tweeted out again today that they do not recognize this, nor NATO, nor any other country. This is an illegal occupation and an illegal seizure of territory, and we fundamentally stand behind Ukraine in insisting that its territorial integrity be restored.
In the five years that Russia has occupied Crimea, there has been a substantial clampdown on political rights and freedoms. There has been deportation, there have been arrests and political prisoners. There has been human rights abuses, and there has been a movement of population into Crimea in what appears to be an effort to Russify it and increase the affinity that some in the population have for President Putin and for Moscow.
So it is a tragic situation, it is an ongoing situation. Here I just brought along a copy – as I said, the United States does not recognize this – on July 25th of last year – I’ll just hold it up – Secretary of State Pompeo issued this declaration in which he said that “the United States rejects Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea and pledges to maintain this policy until Ukraine’s territorial integrity is restored.” That is an important component of our policy in addressing Ukraine overall.
I would add one other point, that as much as we are concerned about Russia’s continuing occupation of Crimea, we are also concerned about the occupation and the fighting in eastern Ukraine in the Donbas. And Russia has continued that presence recently in the Kerch Straits, or outside the Kerch Straits. It’s attacked the Ukrainian navy, imprisoned several sailors. We call on Russia to release those sailors immediately, and we would urge Russia to resume again in good faith in negotiating an end to the conflict in eastern Ukraine to see the restoration of that territory to Ukraine, as called for in the Minsk agreement.
So with that, I’ll turn it back to questions.
MODERATOR: Great. Our first question comes from Konstantin Vasilkevitch at the 2000 weekly newspaper in Ukraine. He says: “We are deeply concerned with the fate of Ukrainian sailors detained last November. Please let us know, do you see any light at the end of the tunnel? Their relatives are waiting for any good news.”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, I fully share that concern. The attack on the vessels and the seizure of the vessels and the imprisonment of the sailors is entirely outside any international law. We have called on Russia to release these sailors immediately from the beginning. They have refused to do so, and indeed in conversations with European allies as well as with us, the Russians have indicated that they will not do so because they don’t want to do this during the Ukrainian presidential election period. A very cynical decision, it seems to me, to hold them as hostages, if you will, because of a presidential election. They should be released immediately.
Likewise, the Russians should be giving as much access to these prisoners as possible until the time that they’re released, both from the Red Cross and from the Ukrainian consulate.
MODERATOR: Next question, submitted in advance by Vladimir Ermakov from Interfax in Russia. He asks: “The EU have recently put new sanctions against Russia. Are you expecting more such efforts from the Europeans?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Yes. Let me say that not only did the European Union do this on Friday, so did the United States and Canada. And it was a concerted move by all of us to demonstrate that we are deeply concerned about Russia’s continuing annexation, continuing occupation and claimed annexation of Crimea, and also about the extension of that to include a claim to have unilateral control over the Kerch Straits and access to the Sea of Azov, and as we just talked about in the previous question, its attack and arrests of the Ukrainian sailors.
So it was a concerted effort by the U.S., European Union, and Canada. What I would expect is that we will continue to see what we have seen for the past few years. There are periodic ratcheting up of sanctions if the situation continues as it is. We don’t want to give anyone a sense of complacency that we are accepting or satisfied with the status quo. We fully believe it needs to change. We would, of course, be looking at the opposite, of removing sanctions, if Russia were to restore the territory to Ukrainian control. And if Russia was negotiating in good faith in eastern Ukraine, we would be able to see the Minsk agreements implemented, and at the conclusion of that, those Minsk-related sanctions would also be able to be lifted. But until then, I think you will see a continued push from the European Union, the United States, others, to continue to ratchet up sanctions as a means of trying to get Russia to engage seriously.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Alina Grebneva at RBK TV in Russia. She asks: “Do you think domestic and foreign policy in Ukraine will change after the presidential elections in 2019?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, what’s a most interesting thing that’s happened in Ukraine in the last four years is that the society has really found a much stronger sense of national identity. It is more pro-Ukrainian, more anti-Russian, more pro-European, pro-NATO, a stronger sense of national and cultural identity than ever existed before. And you can understand that when you’re attacked by a neighbor you have to defend yourself, your young people are having to fight on the front line and they’re dying, some of them – some of them are wounded, it has that effect on society.
So we’ve seen a few things. We’ve seen, for instance, that whereas there had been very little support, moderate support for NATO membership in the past – say, five years ago – recently the Ukrainian Duma voted by two-thirds to seek NATO membership. And that’s just a change because of this dynamic.
Likewise, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church insisted on having autocephaly, recognition of its status as an independent Orthodox Church, and that only took place because of the anger and frustration and concern that people in Ukraine have about being subordinated to a Russian Orthodox Church.
So this has been a fundamental shift in society. I bring all this up because the society then sets the limits on what any Ukrainian government can do, no matter who’s elected – and they’re facing a democratic election, first round on March 31st, second round in the middle of April, where we don’t know who the winner will be. It is a truly open contest and – in that whoever does win will be faced with these attitudes in society and it does constrain them in what they will be able to do.
I would expect any Ukrainian government to continue on a path of strengthening democratic institutions, strengthening reform, fighting corruption, and insisting – defending its territory and insisting on the return of occupied territories to Ukrainian sovereignty.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Ian Bateson at The Atlantic. He asks: “Today and yesterday, while touring Donbas, Yulia Tymoshenko has blamed the West for the failure to establish peace. She also said that Ambassador Volker is negotiating without Ukraine. What do you comment?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, that’s not true, to begin with. I haven’t had any negotiations or meetings with Russian counterparts without closely coordinating with Ukraine first and returning and briefing back afterwards as well, and I’ve also done that in very close coordination with France and Germany. And the reason is clear: it’s very important that Russia see that there is a united message from the United States, Ukraine, France, Germany, in addressing the conflict in the east. So first off, the notion that we’re negotiating over Ukraine’s head is simply wrong.
Second, I don’t think you can blame the West for the lack of peace or the lack of progress. I think the only person or only entity that you can blame is Russia. Russia continues to have control of the military operation, absolute command and control through regular Russian officers. It finances the contract soldiers who then staff out the military operation. It provides the intelligence services. It funds – it created, selects, and funds the leadership of the civil administration that they’ve created, the so-called People’s Republic, and yet Russia denies that it is doing these things and insists that Ukraine negotiate with those entities directly, which would be legitimizing that type of invasion and occupation.
So Ukraine has not done that, I think quite understandably, but I think the only – the only entity you can blame here is Russia for failing to engage seriously about establishing peace, implementing the Minsk agreements, seeing the territory restored to Ukraine.
As Ian may know, the U.S. along with others put forward a proposal to have a UN-mandated peacekeeping force in eastern Ukraine, which would be a way of establishing genuine peace and security with the withdrawal of Russian forces before Ukrainians come back, and in that space and time created under a UN mandate to have local elections, and to see all the political steps of Minsk implemented as well. Russia has refused that. Ukraine fully supports that proposal; France and Germany do as well. Russia has rejected that. And again, we do want to work with Russia on this, and we do so in close coordination with Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Our next question comes from Klubradio in Hungary: “The Ukraine embassy organized a conference in Budapest for the fifth anniversary of the claimed annexation of Crimea. They hoped that in retaking the peninsula – they hoped to retake the peninsula and expressed their disappointment with NATO and the EU, asking for more support. How can – how can they offer more support and what role could Hungary play?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, Hungary, of course, is an important neighbor of Ukraine, and I think Ukraine, as Hungarians would appreciate given their own history, is facing very serious challenges of occupation of its territory by Russian forces in Crimea and in Eastern Ukraine. And I think Ukraine’s full political – I’m sorry, Hungary’s full political support for Ukraine facing this external aggression is extremely important. I think Hungary needs to be vocal and demonstrate that kind of support for Ukraine. There is no military solution in the sense of Ukraine taking Crimea back by force. That would be militarily a disaster. It would lead to the loss of thousands and thousands of lives. It’s not something anyone should be contemplating.
So there’s no taking it back by force. But establishing both legally as a principle that it belongs to Ukraine, establishing the outreach to the population, and sustaining the unique Crimean culture, being a home to Crimean Tatars, creating an environment in which Crimea is remembered and celebrated is, I think, vitally important to sustaining the memory of Crimea and eventually seeing it restored to Ukrainian territory. And I think Hungary, which again is a country which is defined by its language, by its culture, by its history over 1,000 years in the Carpathian Basin, amid a sea of (inaudible), and others, I think that Hungary would well understand the cultural dimension to this as well.
And then finally, I would just say that I know there is an issue between Hungary and Ukraine over national minority rights in Transcarpathia with the ethnic Hungarian community wanting to have education in Hungarian language. Ukrainians have passed a language law that says that people also need to learn Ukrainian in high school and use that for certain subjects. I would really hope that Hungary and Ukraine could sit down together and iron out the mechanics of how to do this. There are reasonable positions on both sides. It has gotten frozen right now. And the fact that it’s frozen has prevented Ukraine from having ministerial level meetings at NATO, which is very unfortunate because in a situation where they’re being attacked like this, they need that external support. So I would hope that Ukraine and Hungary can sit down and work that out and put Hungary in the position of giving absolute full support to Ukraine.
MODERATOR: Our next question is from Latvian television. “Mr. Volker, you have said that Russia is willing to manage Mr. Poroshenko to lose the election. Do you see any other candidate that Russia is supporting, and would the U.S. support Mr. Poroshenko?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, we don’t take a position in the election. This is a democracy. You have candidates running. It’s an open contest, so who know who’s going to win. We support principles. We support principles of strong democratic institutions that reform anti-corruption and security, and Ukraine’s restoration of its sovereignty and territorial integrity. So that’s what we stand for, and we articulate that to all of the candidates. I think it is true – in fact, it’s not only true, it’s something that Russia itself has said – that they want to see Poroshenko defeated, and that’s simply a fact. I think that there has just been a development of personal animosity between President Putin and President Poroshenko, and so he’s just looking for a change. I’m not sure, however, that Russia identifies any particular candidate in saying, “This is our candidate that will win and we get something from that,” and that’s because of what we talked about before. Ukrainian society has become so cohesive in a sense of national identity and demands of what its government will do, I’m not sure any candidate, no matter who wins, would be in a position to really give presence to Russia as a result.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Mikhail Turgiev at RIA Novosti in Russia. “Does the U.S. have plans to deliver other weapons to Ukraine rather than what it had already been – it had already promised? If yes, what kind of weapons could those be?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Right. So as you remember, during the Obama administration, there was a ban on the sale of lethal defensive arms to Ukraine, almost unique – the U.S. has defense relationships and arms sales relationships with countries all over the world, including still with Saudi Arabia today as an example, but many, many others. And Ukraine was singled out – even though it was being attacked and needed to defend itself – was being singled out as a country that we were not supporting.
We’ve ended that in the Trump administration. We’ve decided to treat Ukraine like any other normal country that has normal defensive needs, and we’ve been willing to both provide assistance, and we will also be willing to provide arms sales to Ukraine to help them develop a strong, capable, sustainable defense capability. As is known, part of that assistance was to provide anti-tank systems, so that if tanks were to progress further into Ukrainian territory, Ukraine would have a better ability to defend itself. Ukraine has indicated an interest in acquiring more of that. That’s possible.
We also need to be looking at things like air defense and coastal defense. Anti-sniper systems is something the U.S. has already provided. It’s whatever is reasonable and necessary for Ukraine to have a modern capability to defend itself and prevent further aggression against it territory.
MODERATOR: Next question is from Orestis Velmachos from the Press Project: “Given that the three front-runners in the presidential election have stated they wish the integration of their country into NATO, do you think that this is something that can happen in the near future? And if so, do you expect a strong reaction from Russia?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, first off, NATO has consistently maintained its commitment from the Bucharest Summit in 2008 onwards that it sees Ukraine as a potential member. It is a European democracy, has a right to security like any other country, but that doesn’t mean it is imminent, and of course, more than 10 years has gone by since then. And that is because countries need to meet all of the standards for NATO: democracy, civil control of the military, reform, anticorruption, contribution to collective – to common security, reform of the military establishment, reform of the defense sector generally. So there’s a lot to do.
It’s up to, in some ways, how quickly Ukraine can progress on all of these issues. It is also up to NATO making decisions by consensus as to when they feel an appropriate time would be to actually extend a formal invitation. I can’t predict when that would happen. What is important is that NATO has declared its willingness in principle and that Ukraine keep progressing in meeting those standards along the way, and then when the time is right, it would be possible to do.
MODERATOR: And do you expect a reaction from Russia?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: I would hope not. Russia has accepted and I think actually has benefited from the NATO membership of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, former parts that Russia had incorporated into the Soviet Union. We never recognized that, of course, but they had been incorporated into the Soviet Union. They’re now independent states, they’re part of the European Union, part of NATO, and they’ve been excellent neighbors for Russia and there’s peace, there’s no violence, there’s trade, there’s economic development. So I would hope that Russia would look at all its neighbors and instead of feeling that it needs to limit their choices and prevent them from realizing their aspirations, to instead see that successful neighbors help make Russia successful too.
MODERATOR: Next question comes from Harold Hyman from CNews in France: “Is the rift between the patriarchate of Moscow and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church playing a role in the conflict?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: In the conflict, no. It’s the other way around.
MODERATOR: I’m sorry. I misread that. “Is it playing a role in the campaign?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: In the political campaign. So we’ll start with the conflict – Russia’s attacks on Ukraine, its seizure of territory, its killing Ukrainians, that’s what caused the sense in Ukraine that we cannot be under the Russian Orthodox Church; we need recognition of our own independent orthodox church. That was accomplished last year and the beginning – the very beginning of this year right after the holidays. And that is something where indeed, President Poroshenko was using that as part of his campaign slogan, but I think it’s a much broader issue than a political campaign. It’s something that is reflective of the demand of society for recognition of its independence and sovereignty. And I don’t think – I would be surprised, but I don’t think Ukrainians attach that to just one person. I think they attach that to the development of their society as a whole.
MODERATOR: Second question from Ian Bateson at the Atlantic: “Why should people outside of Ukraine care about Minsk?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, this is tremendously important, and thanks for the question, because beginning with the Helsinki agreements in 1975 and onward, we faced both tremendous security challenges in Europe – the U.S. has treaty obligations to its NATO allies. At that time, we faced a massive military standoff in conventional forces and in nuclear forces right on the wall in Berlin as well, and it was very tense. And what we needed to do was to increase the conditions for stability and security in Europe, reducing armaments, and creating opportunities for peaceful economic development. That remains true to this day. We need those same principles respected.
In Helsinki and in every major document ever since then, we said that countries need to refrain from the threat or use of force, that they need to respect the decisions of countries for their own political orientation, there should be no change of borders by force in Europe. This is the so-called Decalogue from the Helsinki principles and they remain valid to this day. And if we fail to uphold those principles, a country can invade and attack another, steal its territory, keep killing people there – if it can happen in one place, it can happen in other places. In fact, we’ve seen that. It happened in Georgia; it is happening in Ukraine. Russia still occupies part of Moldova.
So this is a matter that concerns Europe as a whole. We have to uphold the principles of territorial integrity and peace and security because if we don’t, it can eventually envelop lots of other countries as well.
MODERATOR: Next question from Randy Rickman at the Leader-Telegram: “What is the best way to provide humanitarian aid to Ukraine?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, the Ukrainian Government is not a – it’s not a poor country, it’s not an incapable government. They need to take the lead, and there are areas where humanitarian assistance is greatly needed, particularly in the conflict areas where Russia has invaded and there is a line of fire going on and people are facing mortar and there are snipers and so forth, and it’s – and in the occupied areas it creates hardship for the population in terms of access to basic services.
These are things that the Ukrainian Government should be, in the first instance, trying to do itself – to reach out to the affected populations and provide as much support as possible. They do some; they need to do more. And then they can also be leaders in the international effort through the UN – the UN has a fund for this – to help others contribute to humanitarian relief in Ukraine as well.
MODERATOR: Next question from Roman Olachek (ph) at The Financial Times: “How do you assess Yulia Tymoshenko’s plan should she be elected president to seek more participation in the peace process from Budapest memorandum countries?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: I think we can look at it from any number of formats. We started with the Minsk agreements, which were Russia, Ukraine, and the OSCE, and then we have the Normandy format – France, Germany, Ukraine, and Russia. Budapest would bring in the United States, bring in a few others. The substantive issue is still the same. The substantive issue is that Russia is not acknowledging its responsibilities. When people talk about the Budapest memorandum, they often point out, oh, the U.S. and the UK have not fulfilled their obligations to protect Ukrainian territory. That’s not quite the way it reads. But we all agree to guarantee the territorial integrity of Ukraine, and Russia is the only country that has violated that. Russia is the country that has invaded and taken territory from Ukraine, and that dynamic plays out no matter what the format is – whether it would be a Budapest format, or whether it is Minsk or whether it is Normandy. It’s only getting Russia to the table. And I think it’s not a – what we have is not a lack of an appropriate format; what we have is a lack of political will from Russia.
MODERATOR: So I think we have time for two more questions.
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Okay.
MODERATOR: Next is from The Kyiv Post: “Mr. Volker, can you confirm that the U.S. is going to provide Ukraine with two more Island-class patrol boats in addition to those already formally assigned to Ukraine in September?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Yeah, I’d have to check on what exactly we’re speaking about here, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself. The broader principle is the U.S. remains committed to providing assistance to Ukraine and for its military, including its navy, and that we are also open to foreign military sales to Ukraine if the Ukrainian Government pursues that, which they’ve indicated they will. So we have a broad, open support for Ukraine’s strengthening of its defense capabilities.
MODERATOR: Okay, our last question, wrapping it out nicely, same journalist as our first question, Konstantin Vasilkevitch from 2000 weekly newspaper in Ukraine. He asks: “In two weeks, Ukrainians will go to polling stations. Do you have any reassuring words or maybe some advice for the voters how to make a correct choice, how to select a proper candidate? What should the criteria be for their priorities when they’re voting?”
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: Well, I think first off, it would be presumptuous of anybody to tell Ukrainian citizens how to vote. It’s their country; they should make their choices, they should vote their conscience about what they want to see for their country. The one thing I guess I would say in addition to that is Ukraine has enormous potential. It is a large country with a wealth of resources, with a talented population. It can be one of the greatest countries in Europe and Ukrainians should have confidence in that and they should – they should expect that their political leaders, whoever they may be, will help in building that kind of Ukraine because it’s something that can be done and that the Ukrainian people deserve.
MODERATOR: All right. Any final words before we wrap up?
AMBASSADOR VOLKER: No, thank you. I appreciate being here. It’s a sad day to commemorate Russia’s continued occupation and claimed annexation of Crimea, and of course we do call for the release of all the political prisoners and the sailors and others who have been taken by Russia. And I do hope that we can get to a point where together with Russia, we can negotiate an end to these conflicts.
MODERATOR: Well, thank you. Unfortunately, that’s all the time we have for today. So thanks to all of our participants for the questions. Thank you again, Ambassador Volker, for joining us. To those who participated in today’s conference, if you would like to clip audio or video from today’s program, we will send you links to broadcast-quality files shortly. We will also provide a transcript as soon as it is available. If you would like to receive any of these products and you haven’t already RSVP’d, please remember to fill out the survey located in the polls tab of the event page, or you can send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks again for your participation and we hope you can join us for another briefing again soon.