Telephonic Press Briefing with Ambassador Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations
Moderator: Greetings to everyone from the U.S.-European Media Hub in Brussels. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from across Europe and thank all of you for joining today’s discussion.
Today we are pleased to be joined from New York by Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Ambassador Volker has recently returned from a trip to Ukraine and Dubai which included talks with his Russian counterpart Vladislav Surkov, so this is a very timely discussion. We thank you, Ambassador Volker, for taking the time to speak with us today.
We will begin today’s call with opening remarks from Ambassador Volker, and then we will turn to your questions. We will try to get to as many as we can during the time that we have. Today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Volker. Ambassador?
Ambassador Volker: Good afternoon, everyone. Thank you very much. Good morning from here in New York. As just mentioned, thank you for the introduction, I was in Dubai and prior to that in Ukraine. Prior to that I was also in Brussels for meetings with the EU and NATO.
I thought it would be helpful to you all to give a very short read-out of the meetings that I had in Dubai, the meeting with Vladislav Surkov, the Russian representative, and his delegation, and then answer some questions.
The first thing I’d like to say is, of course, this was, 2017 was a year of violence in Ukraine. It really was a hot war. The level of violence throughout most of the year was higher than in 2016, and [inaudible] that is probably violence since the war really began in 2014. It continues on.
There’s a tremendous humanitarian cost to this, and it is remarkable to have such a humanitarian catastrophe on the footsteps of Europe, and this has not gotten more attention publicly than it has already. It is really a tragedy. Over 10,000 people have been killed. On a typical night, there will be hundreds if not thousands of ceasefire violations. On average a Ukrainian soldier has lost his life about three every week. There are frequent interruptions of normal life for people in the Donbass. Everything from cell phone service being cut off, to access to water supplies, or foodstuffs. They become [inaudible]. There are interruptions of [different] sorts. There are plenty of people, for instance, who are elderly who are not able to travel to collect their pension payments. So there’s a lot of hardship, and this used to be a relatively prosperous area. It has really been dramatically affected by the conflict. So this tragedy needs to stop.
I have discussed this in great detail with the President of Ukraine, President Poroshenko when I was in Kyiv. Also with his National Security Advisor. I had a meeting with several members of the Rada, the government ministers. I met with the heads of the international humanitarian organizations. We are working very, very closely with Ukrainians in all aspects of this.
I should also probably say at the beginning here, of course the U.S. objective remains the same from when I was first appointed and when we first launched this effort, as stated by Secretary Tillerson in Kyiv in July. And it’s very simply: we seek the restoration of sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine and the safety and security of all Ukrainian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, nationality, or religion.
To the meetings with my Russian counterpart, they really kind of fell into three parts. The first part was my conveying to the Russian side a very strong sense of disappointment and frustration in Washington that Russia has done absolutely nothing to end the conflict or to withdraw its forces since we began this process when I was appointed in July. That is something that has been noticed and is a source of frustration in Washington.
There are many issues that are of concern in the U.S.-Russia relationship. Ukraine is only one of them. None of them are in great shape, but we had hoped to see progress on Ukraine, and we have not.
The second part was to then talk about some immediate issues that could and should be addressed independent of a solution to the conflict. These are things that should be done now and are just sitting. So I raised a bunch of those.
The third was a discussion of the peacekeeping force.
On the immediate issues, I’ll go over a few of them. One of them is to see a restoration of the presence of Russian officers in the JCCC. This is a Joint Consultative body that was set up with Ukrainians and Russians in order to facilitate their communications to try to improve the ceasefire and to address incidents that occur and wind them down as quickly as possible. This has been operating for some time. At the end of last year, the end of 2017, the Russians pulled their officers out.
There are issues that have to be addressed, some very practical or technical things like what kind of documents do the people have, and what is the status of the Russians officers on Ukrainian soil, and things like that. These are eminently able to be addressed, and I know the Ukrainian Foreign Minister, Pavlo Klimkin, has been in touch with the Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, to try to address those technical issues. I hope that is done soon and that we see a restoration of the presence of Russian officers as quickly as possible. It is really important for the security and the safety of the people of Donbass.
A second thing was to increase the number of crossing points across the line of conflict that is dividing Ukraine right now. There are border crossings, and it’s remarkable that something in the neighborhood of 1.1 million crossings are made every month. There is a lot of movement back and forth. That means there’s a high demand. And it is funneled through just a small number of crossing points. It would be good to see an opening of a few more.
A third thing was the restoration of cellphone service. There was a major shut-off of cellphone service to the people of the Donbass last week. It has been partially restored in the Luhansk area but there needs to be a restoration in the Donetsk area as well. As you know, with everyone using smart phones and things these days, it’s a vital link in communications and it needs to be restored.
We also talked about doing more on prisoners and prisoner exchanges. There was a very positive prisoner exchange, very successful, at the end of December or early January, I forget now, but before the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. And that was very welcomed by a number of families. There were a number released by the Ukrainian side and then a smaller number released by the Russian side and those people have come home. In fact I met with five of the detainees who were released from the Russian side of the conflict when I was in Kyiv last week. But there are still more who are being held and it’s important that they all be released, all the prisoners in this conflict should be released.
I provided some specific names that were given to me by the detainees that I met with in Kyiv to identify and name people who were still being held and to encourage their release along with the release of everyone else. And while these lists are being developed, while we’re waiting for these prisoners to be exchanged, also to increase the access of the Red Cross. It has been very limited access for the Red Cross over the course of the conflict, and it has often been only with the presence of Intelligence or Interior Ministry people from the occupied territories with the Red Cross which, as you know, is against the Red Cross protocol. So we urge greater access for the Red Cross.
Finally, to note that there was, the day that I was in Kyiv and scheduled to go east to the line of conflict, there was a heavy snowstorm, and I was not able to make the trip just due to the press of time. But that night there were absolutely no ceasefire violations recorded by the Ukrainian military, recorded by the Ukrainian side. There were no ceasefire violations that took place, which is the first time in well over a year, and it is proof that ceasefires are possible and they can be effectuated, and they should be repeated, and they should be permanent. So I also urge that the Russian side do as much as possible to maintain and extend a genuine ceasefire.
Then we got -- and I should say that the Russian side was receptive to my raising these points, and they had some positive reactions on a few of them, and we’re waiting to see how they develop. These will be addressed specifically in the Trilateral Contact Group mechanism that is set up to implement the Minsk Agreements, [TCG], the Russian-Ukrainian [inaudible] representatives meet there every couple of weeks.
Then we moved on to the discussion of a possible peacekeeping force. Here there is nothing that is surprising to any of you, we have this territory that is currently being occupied by Russia, and [the forces] are under Russian command and control. And the Russian side is concerned about Ukraine implementing political steps under the Minsk Agreements. The Ukrainian side is of course concerned that they can’t access the territory that’s still occupied and that there is no effective ceasefire and [inaudible]. So the Minsk Agreements say all of these things. They cover the political and the security steps, but it has, but discussions about that have really gone nowhere.
So the proposal that we put forward last summer was to have a UN-mandated peacekeeping force that would be able to provide security in the area if the Russians were to withdraw. That would create a secure environment, and in that environment it would create the conditions where Ukraine could implement political steps required by the Minsk Agreements. And then once that’s completed, you would have elections, local elections, and the territory would then be restored to Ukraine.
So we see it largely as an implementation mechanism or a transmission mechanism, getting from the current situation to one where the territory is restored to Ukrainian control and the Minsk Agreement is fully implemented.
Russia proposed something very different in September. They proposed a protection force for the monitors that operated only along the line of conflict and did not provide any real security and did not control the Ukrainian side of the Russian border and so forth. So we went over that again in our meeting in Dubai and we talked about how to get from one to the other. How do you start from the situation where we are today, where Russia is occupying and there’s no peace; to one where there is a full peacekeeping force throughout the territory that provides peace and security, and to have that also take place with Ukraine and implementing political steps as required under the Minsk Agreements.
The Russian side I think, as we talked through how to get this done, how it would actually play out, how you would implement that. I think they were more open this time, and I think we had a good conversation and we are now waiting to hear back from the Russian side with their ideas on more specifics, and we’ll see when that happens.
That’s about it. I would be happy to take some questions.
Moderator: Ambassador Volker, thank you for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.
Our first question comes to us from Julian Barnes of the Wall Street Journal. Mr. Barnes, please.
Ambassador, I wondered if you could give any more details about the sort of interim steps that you were talking about -- crossing points, JCCC, prisoner exchange, Red Cross access. Which of these did Russians seem to want to make progress on the most? You mentioned one or two of them, but I wondered which of these we might expect some movement on.
And then on the peacekeeping, was there any, you say they were more open. Did that exceed your expectations? And was there any discussion of the sort of numbers of what size force? Do the two sides sort of have a similar conception of what the force should be?
Ambassador Volker: Let’s take them in reverse order. On the size, no, we didn’t talk about that. We’re still trying to figure out, can we agree on what the right mandate would be. And we’ve got to hear back from the Russian side as to how they envision getting there.
But I’d say that from our side, you know, look we know a peacekeeping force can’t deploy from day one to day two throughout the entire territory. It’s going to take time to roll in that deployment. And that does create a sense of not everything happening all at once on day one. It’s going to take a little time to implement. I think that was an important point for the Russian side, but we’ve got to hear what they come back with for how they would, what they mean when they are thinking about that.
And on the immediate steps, they took careful not on everything. There did seem to be an appreciation of the restoration of cell phone service and they took note of that and said they would look at how to get the ceasefire necessary so that it could be repaired and they would raise it at [TCG].
On the prisoner exchanges, that’s being worked. People are currently exchanging lists, but they did take note of the additional names that we provided.
On the return of officers to the Joint Consultative Body, they focused on the issue of the status of those officers, their status in Ukraine. And I’m confident that that’s not a difficult issue to resolve, and that there’s a will on the Ukrainian side to resolve it. I think in their direct contacts, again, through the [TCG] they’ll probably get addressed.
I didn’t come away with any greater confidence on the extension of the ceasefire. We are seeing a prolonged low level of violence there.
Oh, and on the crossing points, they said they would be very willing to open one particular crossing point if another one was opened by the Ukrainian side, and it was done in kind of a deal, that the two would be done. I think that’s for the two of them to talk about also in the [TCG].
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes to us from Dennis Dubrovin from the Tass News Agency in Russia.
Question: Thank you very much.
Ambassador, this is another question on the UN Mission to Donbass. Are the phases of the U.S. plan linked to the Kyiv’s obligations with the Minsk Agreement? In particular on Luhansk and Donbass special status guaranteed by the Ukrainian constitution and having local elections?
And does this plan set clear timeframe for these decisions? How many phases does it include? Thank you.
Ambassador Volker: We did not present a particular plan. We didn’t have a piece of paper with things laid out on it. We had a discussion about how this would actually work in practice. The elements that you raise are all part of that in the sense that you have to have a peacekeeping force throughout the entire area so that you’re able to conduct elections. And elections would be once the peacekeeping force is fully deployed and there is security. Because you need a secure environment to have people out campaigning, to have mobility throughout the area, to hold election rallies, maintain polling stations without any intimidation. You need to have a secure environment. So that comes once a force is fully deployed.
On the way to getting there, you’ve got to think of how, from a logistical point of view, how you would actually roll it out.
And on the other side, yes, it’s clear that the Ukrainian side will need to implement all of these steps that it is required to do under the Minsk Agreements. Many of these have already been laid out in something called the road map, looking at when things are supposed to take place.
For instance, according to something that people refer to as the Steinmeier [Accord Law], the special status would take effect on the day of elections. And that means that there would be a little bit of preparatory work to make sure that was ready to happen. That would be taking place in advance of that.
As I’m sure you know, Ukraine did pass the law on special status in early October of last year. That is now ready to be further implemented when we have the conditions to do so.
Moderator: Thank you.
Our next question comes to us from Danila Galperovich from VOA.
Question: Thank you very much. This is Danila Galperovich from the Voice of America, Russian Service. Ambassador, thank you for this briefing and for the opportunity to ask you questions.
Actually I have two. First, what is your impression about steps which Moscow may take towards Ukraine in nearest future? What Mr. Surkov told you about that? Because some analysts are noticing a serious increase of military activity of Russians and predict many things, not excluding invasion.
Second question is, can you be more specific on your, as a representative of the United States, priorities in implementations of Minsk Agreement by both sides? I mean, what should be done, and your point of view first, second, and third by Russians, at the same time by Ukrainians? Thank you.
Ambassador Volker: In terms of the situation on the ground, if you take a step back from it, you kind of have to say that nothing has materially changed for several years, after the Russians took the [inaudible] the line has been relatively stable, and there has been a continuing level of violence, but not a seizing of new territory. And the presence of the Russian forces, the forces are there under Russian command and control of Russian officers. That has perhaps professionalized a bit, but it is fundamentally the same thing.
Russia has also maintained a very large military presence in its own territory surrounding Ukraine, around Ukraine’s borders. That has also not substantially changed. There has been some build-up and there have been some exercises and then some relative drawdown, but then also more recently a restoration of levels there. But it doesn’t in itself change anything either. I would be very surprised if Russia were to launch a new offensive into Ukrainian territory. Of course it’s always possible, but I would be surprised if that were to be the case. I think this conflict looks very much as it has for the past several years.
And I do think that that is the default setting. So absent an agreement on peace and a new framework and implementation of the Minsk Agreements, I think that’s what we’re likely to continue to see.
Now as far as, if I remember the second question it was on the peacekeeping force. What was it?
Question: How do you see the priorities in Minsk Agreement being fulfilled by both sides? Like first, second, third. What should be done like immediately by any of participants?
Ambassador Volker: Understood. Thank you.
On the issue of sequencing, that’s one of the things the Minsk agreements are not clear about. It lists things that need to happen, but it doesn’t say when they happen.
The first couple of points on the document are ceasefire and withdrawal of heavy weapons. Other points down towards the bottom of the document, for instance, are the restoration of the Ukrainian side of the international border to Ukrainian control. And more in the middle of the document, you have things like local elections and the special status law and amnesty for people who have committed acts as part of the conflict.
Those are things that have been under discussion for years in the Normandy format and under the Trilateral Contact meetings in Minsk, and the road map developed that tried to assign time lines; frankly, this has never been agreed. That’s why we proposed the idea of a peacekeeping force because the fundamental disagreement is the Russians saying we need to see political steps from Ukraine now, and the Ukrainians saying we can’t do that because there’s no security and we can’t physically hold elections, for example, in that environment, and we can’t take further steps on special status without multiple authorities being in place and there being peace and security and a ceasefire and so forth. So it’s been going around in circles.
The idea of a peacekeeping force is to create a neutral and secure area where Russian forces will have withdrawn, but before Ukraine gets the territory back, and in that environment you create security, and in that environment you create the space for all of the political steps under Minsk to be implemented. As mentioned, special status elections and so forth.
At the end of that, then the territory is handed over from the international community, the UN-mandated peacekeeping force, to Ukrainian control. So that’s the idea behind it. And then you don’t have to worry as much about the specific sequencing because it all gets done.
Moderator: Thank you. Ambassador Volker, I know your time is tight. Do you have time for a few more questions?
Ambassador Volker: Yeah, let’s do two more.
Moderator: Great. So our next question comes to us from Konrad Schuller from Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Mr. Schuller?
Question: Ambassador Volker, thanks for this opportunity.
Your counterpart Vladislav Surkov has been quoted saying that you have been presenting something like a “Dubai package” containing a [inaudible] deployment of the planned peacekeeping mission.
My first question, is there any truth in this “Dubai package” deal of Mr. Surkov that you are supposed to have presented?
And second, you just said there were some positive movements from the Russian side which you observed in your latest meeting on the 26th. Which were they in connection to the deployment of the UN peacekeeping mission? Were the Russians, did Mr. Surkov agree to the idea that the mission could be deployed beyond the immediate contact line? Maybe towards the uncontrolled part of the Ukrainian-Russian border, and not only as a sort of protection force for the OSCE?
Ambassador Volker: Thank you.
Yes, I saw that. I would not, since we didn’t actually have a formal proposal, it kind of, I wouldn’t have thought to call it a “Dubai package.” But that said, you know, it’s fine. What we did is we had a very detailed discussion, a very thorough discussion about how you would get from where we are to a peacekeeping force that would have control over the territory and be able to create the conditions for implementing Minsk Agreements and an election and so forth. And I think that there we had a pretty open discussion about what it would need to look like. The way I would characterize it would be that there was more openness. I wouldn’t say there was a commitment or a movement from the Russian side. There’s openness, talking about how we would get there.
And then yes, in response to your last part of the question. Willingness to see that a UN force would have a mandate greater than protection of the monitors, and that it would have access to territory that is not only along the line of conflict, but throughout the territory, including up to the international border.
I would just quibble with one thing you said in your question, when you say uncontrolled international border. No, it’s controlled by Russia at the moment, and the thing that makes an international border is the two sides need to have control on either side. And that’s not the case at the moment. That’s what we ultimately want to try to get back to.
Does that answer it or is there any follow-up that’s needed?
Moderator: Mr. Schuller?
Question: Sorry, I technically couldn’t get the last sentence of the Ambassador.
Ambassador Volker: It was just to ask if you needed to follow-up on anything or if that kind of clarified.
Question: Yes, Vladislav Surkov is quoted as saying that he took up your proposals with great interest, so what about exactly is his reaction? You mentioned a little bit, but could we get more about a larger territory than proposed by Russia to be controlled by the UN peacekeepers? Control of the border. Was it a straight “no,” or was it something like “we might talk about it?”
Ambassador Volker: We left it that Russia was going to come back to us with a proposal on how to do this. We are looking forward to seeing how they put this together. We’ll see at that point what they really mean.
What I said in the discussions, was that there was openness. Because if you think about how a peacekeeping force would need to deploy, you couldn’t get from point A to point Z all at one time. You have to think in a rolling deployment, or a staged deployment, where you start in one place, you go to the next, you go to the next. And as you do that, you can imagine that as the peacekeeping force asserts its presence, it then can begin to exercise a wider mandate. So it could start, for instance, along the line of conflict but without any further decision-making be able to then move to the next phase of deployment and the next phase of deployment, and you end up with a peacekeeping force throughout the entire area that has a much broader mandate than just protecting the monitors, but creating a secure environment, and one that allows for the conduct of local elections, and that happens once it is fully deployed.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes to us from Aliesandra Karter from the Ukrainian National News. Ms. Karter?
Question: Hello. I wanted to ask about, I remember at your last meeting with Mr. Surkov you said that that was a “step back.” So how would you characterize this one, being that you have just in Dubai? And when do you expect the next meeting maybe on the same topic, on Donbass? This is the first question.
The second one is specifically about the exchange of people held in Donbass area. I heard that you have talks on that, and I wanted to ask maybe whether there is some perspective, maybe you know, when do you expect the next date we will have maybe an exchange and how much amount of Ukrainians there will be held yet?
Ambassador Volker: On the second question, I did not get a sense of any specific timing or specific numbers. That’s something I know is being worked through the Trilateral Contact Group and other channels, but I did want to make a point to raise the issue and to urge that there be further exchanges, and Mr. Surkov took note of that, and I think would like to see the same thing. So I passed it on, but I don’t have any more specifics on that.
And back to your first question, what was that?
Question: You called your last meeting with Mr. Surkov like a “step back”, so how would you characterize this one?
Ambassador Volker: The last time we met in Belgrade, it was a bit of a step back. It was all the way back to where they tabled the proposal on the UN in September.
This time I think there was more openness in thinking about a wider mandate for the peacekeeping force, a wider geographic area, and how this would fit with the overall Minsk agreement implementation, and then how do you get to elections. It just seemed to be more constructive, a constructive discussion that we had about modalities. How would you get from here to there? But we’ll see, as I said, the Russian side is going to then come back to us with a revised proposal as to how they would envision it working, and then we’ll have to look at that. And we do not have any date at this time set for a further meeting.
Moderator: Thank you. Unfortunately, that was the last question we have time for. Ambassador Volker, do you have any closing remarks you’d like to make?
Ambassador Volker: Thank you all very much for making the time for the call today. I appreciate the opportunity. And I do want to reiterate yet again how important, how much of a hot conflict this is. There’s really a war going on, and how people are suffering as a result of that, and it really does deserve as much attention as we can give it, and we hope that we can bring about a peace in 2018. It’s what we were striving for.
Thank you all very much.
Moderator: And I want to thank you, Ambassador Volker, for joining us and thank all of you for participating and for your questions.