Telephonic Press Briefing with Ambassador Kurt Volker

Special Briefing
Ambassador Kurt Volker, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations
via teleconference hosted by The Brussels Hub, Belgium
May 24, 2018

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 very pleased to be joined from London by Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations. Ambassador Volker has recently returned from a trip to Ukraine, which included travel to the eastern part of the country, 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: Thank you very much. I appreciate everyone making time for this call today.

I thought I would kick off with a few things and then take some questions. As was just mentioned by Ms. Diaz, I indeed just last week visited Ukraine, both eastern Ukraine around the conflict area and also had meetings in Kyiv.

A couple of take-aways from that visit that I wanted to highlight. One of them is that this is still a very hot war. This past week we had virtually a record number of ceasefire violations. OSCE calculated over 7,000 for the week. That is quite significant and an uptick from where things have been.

Russia announced today that it is sending a so-called humanitarian convoy, their 77th one, into Eastern Ukraine across the international border. Again. These have typically been used to supply the fighting forces in Ukraine in the past, so that is also a concern. And when you look at the impact of the conflict, there have been over 10,000 people killed -- civilians and military both. There are approximately 1.5 million displaced persons. Estimates vary, but that’s a number used by the IOM (International Organization for Migration) . And you see a degrading humanitarian situation over time. There isn’t anything particularly acute one day to the next necessarily, but over time, this is a degrading situation.

For example, you see stress on the infrastructure after four years of conflict. Power, water, heat, electricity, cellular communications, crossing points, roads, mobility of people. All of these things are downgraded.

You see it in the health sector. There has been an outbreak of tuberculosis. It’s a particularly dangerous strain because it is resistant to antibiotics, and that is spreading in the area. You see potential threats to the water supply caused by environmental damage. The industry has shut down, some mines have been flooded. Some mines have been used as a dump for radioactive waste. This can get into the groundwater or can cause other environmental damage.

There are, of course the physical risks to the population, and every so often we hear stories of people being killed by a landmine or unexploded ordnance.

Then, of course, you have the active conflict itself. Snipers shooting at people, and mortars going off in villages. One of the villages I visited was Popasna which is very close to the line of conflict, and there had been mortars landing in the village a few days before I got there, and then the day after there was sniper fire against the village as well. So it is a very active conflict, a hot war again, as I would say, and it is having a tremendous humanitarian impact that should not be ignored anywhere in Europe. It often falls off the front pages, but this really should be treated as a matter of urgency.

A second thing I would say is to reiterate that there’s no ambiguity here. That the forces fighting in eastern Ukraine are under direct Russian command and control, and the two political entities likewise are wholly sustained by the Russian Federation. Everything from how they got there to their ongoing finances. So Russia has a direct responsibility for this conflict. And what we hope is that Russia sees the humanitarian situation as well. It says it cares about Russian-speaking people, and the only place in Ukraine where Russian-speaking people are facing these kinds of threats to their daily lives is in the area where Russia is conducting its conflict. So we hope there will be a desire for peace coming from Russia as well.

If there is, you can rest assured we are prepared to continue our dialogue. We’re prepared to help with the deployment of the UN mandated peacekeeping force to establish security in the area, and to help with the implementation of the Minsk Agreements. Insofar as there can be security, then you would see the conduct of local elections, the implementation of special status for this territory, and the implementation of amnesty for those who committed crimes as part of the conflict, provided they’re not crimes against humanity.

So we stand ready to be a facilitator to help bring that about, but it is really in Russia’s hands to decide whether it is going to negotiate towards that kind of solution or not.

The last meeting I had with my Russian counterpart was in January. It was a constructive meeting, and we agreed that Russia would produce a response to our proposal and seek a further meeting to discuss that, and we are still waiting for that. We’ve had no official communication from Russia since then.

I also want to point out as I’m describing Russia’s direct role in conducting this conflict in eastern Ukraine, we have today the release of the report in the Netherlands on the MH-17 shoot-down, and the Dutch have very clearly established the facts of the matter including Russia’s direct responsibility, the unit from which this anti-aircraft weapon was taken and used and returned. That is very significant because I think what the Dutch investigation shows is again underlining the lack of ambiguity that there is indeed a direct responsibility in Russia, and we need Russia to turn the corner here and decide to make peace.

I’ll pause there. There’s more to talk about. I’m sure it will come up in the Q&A.

Moderator: Thank you very much for those remarks. We will now begin the question and answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question comes to us from Morten Buttler who is calling in from the Danish newspaper Borsen.

Question: Mr. Volker, thank you for taking our call today. I’ll jump right into the question.

Obviously in Europe there’s a lot of talk about the Nord Stream 2 gas line these days. How will that potential establishment affect the Ukrainian economy as you have taken a closer look on these last few days?

Ambassador Volker: Thank you for the question.

The Nord Stream 2 project is really a matter of some concern for a variety of reasons. First off, and probably most significantly, is it reverses the trend that Europe has been on for the past several years of increasing diversification of energy supplies and routes.

What we’ve seen is the establishment of interconnectors, the ability of gas to move across Europe. Ukraine, in fact, does not buy gas directly from Russia anymore. They buy Russian gas on the open market coming in through Germany and Slovakia at a lower cost because of market conditions.

What Nord Stream 2 would do is reaffirm Russia as a principal supplier to Europe and eliminate the need for Russia to send gas across Ukraine in transit. This puts Ukraine in a much more vulnerable situation politically.

Russia currently has the ability to supply gas to Europe across Ukraine. So adding Nord Stream 2 is not adding a new capability of supplying gas that doesn’t exist. It is rather replacing one. And it is intended, that replacement is intended purely as a political act by Russia in order to put Ukraine and also to some degree the Baltic states and Poland at a higher degree of vulnerability to Russian pressure. So it’s a purely political project.

When it comes to the economy in Ukraine, Ukraine does benefit from transit fees that are paid for shipping the gas across Ukraine. Those fees would no longer apply if Russian gas was not being shipped across. But that is not a huge portion of the Ukrainian economy.

The Ukrainian economy has been growing, the figures for the latest quarter were 3.1 percent. It is doing okay. It could do better. So I don’t think it’s going to have a tremendous effect on the economy, although it would have an effect on Ukraine’s vulnerability as a country.

From the European side, I’m aware that the Commission has issued a report saying that the nature of this project is not in compliance with European rules on competition. The Council has suggested that because it is offshore, those rules don’t apply. I hope that the European Union, all of these entities, all of these bodies continue to take a close look at this because it does seem to be going very much against the EU’s own stated policy on diversification of the gas market, sources of supply and routes of supply.

Moderator: Thank you.

Our next question comes to us from Natalia Telanova from the Tass News Agency.

Question: Thank you. Our question is if Washington going to intervene to constrain Kyiv [inaudible] which has left dozens of civilians killed and wounded? Do you think Ukraine should stop its advancing the buffer zone which will fall into accordance of the Minsk Agreement?

And is it time for the U.S. and U.S. mediators to voice support for Donbass where people still want a more democratic and fair Ukraine? Thank you.

Ambassador Volker: Thank you very much.

We definitely support the people of the Donbass. That’s why I started this briefing focusing on the humanitarian situation. They are in a terrible predicament. They are stuck behind the conflict line. They are facing an imposed leadership in these two People’s Republics that have no basis in the Ukrainian constitution. They are facing economic difficulties. Much of the economy has been shut down. They’re facing some insecurity from closure of factories, mines and so forth.

So the population there is really taking a big hit, and that’s a terrible thing. That is only being caused by Russia’s intervention, aggression and occupation of its part of Ukraine.

As far as the fighting is concerned, we strongly support a restoration of a ceasefire. That is what the Minsk Agreements say. Since they’ve been signed there has never been a lasting ceasefire, so we would urge Russia to respect the ceasefire and direct the entities that it controls to do that as well.

Ukraine also needs to respect the ceasefire. They do a much better job at this than the Russian forces do. Still, there is work to be done on both sides.

We also urge the parties to respect the separation lines and the conflict lines as agreed in the Minsk Agreement. Again, Russia has taken territory beyond what was agreed. For instance the town of Debaltseve and the ceasefire line around there. Where I visited in the town of Popasna, Russian forces are several kilometers closer to the rest of Ukrainian territory as compared to where they’re supposed to be.

It is true that in some cases Ukrainian forces have tried to recover some of the territory that Russia had advanced into. But we call on all sides, really, to avoid fighting as much as possible. That needs to be principally, I would say, driven by the Russian forces, but on all sides to try to respect the ceasefire, ease the humanitarian situation, and if Russia would agree to a peacekeeping course, this would certainly remove the fighting going on and allow for genuine security in the area, the holding of local elections, legitimate local authorities. As you said, a restoration of democracy again after years of these imposed People’s Republics.

Moderator: Thank you.

For our next question we will turn to Guido Lanfranchi, calling in from the Diplomat Magazine in the Netherlands.

Question: Thank you very much, Mr. Volker, for the update.

My question is on the differences of views between Europe and European allies, especially in the case of Germany. For example, on the supply of lethal weapons from the United States to Ukraine which in these days generally are attacking U.S. supplied to Ukraine by the U.S. in spite of these agreements from the European allies. What’s your take on the strategic differences of views? Thank you.

Ambassador Volker: Thank you very much.

I’ve had multiple consultations across Europe, France and Germany as the leaders in the Normandy process with the P5 members including the UK, other Security Council members temporarily on, the European Union, NATO. And I don’t detect a great deal about the vision to helping Ukraine with its self-defense capabilities. In fact the UK, Canada, Poland, Lithuania, all in their own ways actively support Ukraine’s defense capabilities.

You have to remember that Ukraine is facing a conflict on its own territory. So for all of you on the phone, I would just ask you to imagine for a minute you are at home in your own country. Your soldiers are fighting to defend the territory of your country within your own territory. And soldiers in your military are being killed at the rate of a couple a week on your own territory, trying to defend your territory against a foreign aggressor.

That is an intolerable situation for any country to be in, to face that kind of pressure. And it is only reasonable for Ukraine to defend itself and for others to help them.

As far as disagreements go, we’ve done a lot of consultations, as I said, with all of the various players and I think a year or two ago you might have said that there were disagreements over this, but I really don’t detect much now.

Moderator: Thank you.

For our next question we will turn to Vitaliy Sayenko, from UNIAN in Ukraine.

Question: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

First, I remember recently when you visited Donbass. You also in Kyiv met with the relatives of the detainees who are held in Russia or in Russia-controlled territory, and as I understood, you were given some list of names of [detainees]

I wonder, am curious, is they did have any special channel or secret channel with the Russians to submit the list of detainees to them? Thank you.

Ambassador Volker: Thank you very much.

So the time before last when I was in Ukraine, which I believe was January, I did receive such a list with names, and I did provide that to my Russian counterpart in negotiations Vladislav Surkov. And he took the names, they aware of other names as well. There has been a lot of negotiation about prisoner exchanges preceding that. Some of these were new names. In that context I was able to pass those along and to raise the importance of the release of all detainees.

On my most recent trip to Kyiv, which was just last week, I again met with relatives of people who have been detailed either in the occupied territories or in Russia itself or also one in Belarus. Again, I urged publicly and again today, that we need to see a release of all detainees. It is very difficult for the family members, very difficult for the population, and it can also be adding to a more constructive climate for actually resolving the crisis over time.

Moderator: Thank you.

Our next question comes to us from Herwig Hoeller in the Austrian Press Agency.

Question: Mr. Ambassador, Herwig Hoeller, Austrian Press Agency.

I’d like to ask you about do you think, Mr. Surkov is still [inaudible]. There are some questions about his political future.

And the second question I would like to ask you, given the fact that President Putin is coming to Vienna on the 5th of June, what kind of message Europeans should kind of pass to the Russians to solve the conflict in Donbass that you’ve been speaking about?

Ambassador Volker: I think the most important message for Mr. Putin is that Europeans want to see peace in Ukraine. They want to see the territory of Ukraine restored. And they want to see the implementation of the Minsk agreements. And this is all in Russia’s hands. We need Russia to implement these things.

So a high expectation -- and this is important for President Putin as well. If he wants to reestablish a strong relationship with Europe, if he wants to see sanctions lifted that have been put in place because of the fighting in eastern Ukraine, he needs to act to solve the conflict. There’s a great deal of support across Europe for the deployment of a UN mandated peacekeeping force and if President Putin would seriously agree to such a force, not just a protection force on the line of conflict to protect monitors, but a genuine peacekeeping force, I think we could see some significant progress.

I think that’s the key message for President Putin.

As far as Mr. Surkov goes, I’ve seen the same press reports that you have, but we have not heard anything officially from the Kremlin about whether he is continuing on or not. I found him to be a very smart, very professional, very serious interlocutor, able to communicate reliably. So I’m happy to continue with him if that is who the Kremlin chooses. And at the same time, if they choose to make change, that’s President Putin’s prerogative. The key thing is that we are talking to someone who has direct channel communication with President Putin because the decisions really do rest in his hands.

Moderator: Thank you.

Our next question is from Lawrence Norman who is with the Wall Street Journal based here in Brussels.

Question: Thanks for doing this.

Just on the fact that you haven’t heard anything from the Russians on the peacekeeping proposal since January [inaudible] Putin reelection that happened. Do you see that as a disappointing signal? And at what point do you say well, we’ve waited long enough, we need to do X or Y, and what would that be?

Ambassador Volker: Well, I have to say I am not surprised, I was not surprised that we did not hear anything immediately. Russia, of course, was going into the period of Putin’s reelection and then his reinstallation as President was just earlier this month in May. So I’m not surprised that we did not hear anything for a period of time. But I do think it is now at a point both where Russia has again moved on and President Putin has been reestablished and has named his cabinet and so forth, and also the fighting has picked up and is very severe again in eastern Ukraine, so I’m hoping that we do hear something soon.

Moderator: We have time for just one more question and it will go to Julia Didenko from Donbass Public TV.

Question: Yes, hello. Thank you for the opportunity.

Mr. Volker, as you said, breakdowns of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine renewed. And why is this happening at your point of view? And is there any diplomatic way to make them stop and become maybe less violent? If it’s possible.

Ambassador Volker: Thank you. I don’t have a specific answer for you about this past week. However, it is often the case that when Russia engages in a troop rotation that the level of violence temporarily goes up, and we’ve seen that pattern in the past, so that may be part of what’s happening here.

In addition to that, it is a springtime phenomenon as well. We’ve seen year by year often an uptick in the fighting in the spring, and that may be the case this time as well. We have shined a spotlight on - the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission has shined a spotlight on this. We’ve called for a restoration of ceasefire to the greatest extent possible. And we certainly hope that that’s the case. Both on its own merits, so it is safer for the people, and then also so that some critical work can go on, such as the improvement of safety of some of the boundary crossing points, some of the roads, some of the utilities that need repair. So it is critical that there be a reinforcement to the ceasefire.

Moderator: Thank you. Unfortunately, that was the last question that we have time for. Ambassador Volker, do you have any closing words you would like to offer?

Ambassador Volker: No, I think we covered everything.

As I said, I am anxious to remain engaged. I definitely will do everything I can to make sure that we all understand what’s happening there, that it’s clear that Russia needs to make a fundamental decision to bring peace to eastern Ukraine, to remove its forces, and if it would allow for a UN-mandated peacekeeping force to replace it, I think that’s the best hope we have.

So we’ll do everything we can to keep the channels of dialogue open. We want to resolve this and we’ll be working as hard as we can with countries all over Europe to try to bring that about if Russia will agree.

Moderator: Thank you, Ambassador Volker, for joining us and thank all of you for participating and for your questions.