Telephonic Press Briefing with Kurt 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 around Europe, and thank all of you for joining this discussion.
Now that the U.S. government shutdown is over, we are very pleased to be able to host Ambassador Kurt Volker, the U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations for another call with us. 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, which is approximately 30 minutes. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record.
With that, I will turn it over to Ambassador Volker.
Ambassador Volker: Thank you, and good afternoon to everyone. It is the 31st of January, meaning that tomorrow will be February and we are entering a month where we are really looking at five years now from Russia’s takeover of Crimea and its claimed annexation of Crimea later after that in March. So this conflict which started there has been going on a long time.
The fighting in the Donbas started two and a half [inaudible], the initial takeover of some governance buildings in March of 2014, but that was followed by much larger-scale fighting the six months after that. And that fighting continues to this day. We still have artillery, mortar fire, sniper fire. This year the reports we have is that nine people have died simply crossing the boundary between the occupied area and the government-controlled area in eastern Ukraine. So this is a conflict that still exercises a significant humanitarian toll.
The Minsk agreements remain the framework for resolving the conflict and restoring the territory to Ukrainian control and restoring peace and security. Thus far, they have not been faithfully implemented. We coordinate very closely with France and Germany, which lead the Normandy Format, to urge implementation of the Minsk agreements, but we have not seen an effective ceasefire, we’ve not seen a withdrawal of Russian forces or the withdrawal of, or the removal of the illegal armed groups that Russia has created there. So it continues to be a very dangerous situation for the population and casualties continue to mount.
In addition to that, as you’ll remember, in November we saw further escalation of the conflict as Russia claimed unilaterally to control the Kerch Strait, blocked Ukrainian naval vessels from entering the Sea of Azov, attacked those vessels, boarded them, and arrested the sailors.
Russia continues illegally to hold these Ukrainian sailors and illegally is charging them with crimes under a civilian code, seeking to illegally enter Russian territory, which is not the case. So Russia has just continued to sustain its aggression against Ukraine.
The reports that we see are that Russia intends to continue to hold these sailors at least until April, which puts it on the upside of the Ukrainian presidential election. That just gives the impression that again, it’s more of an act of policy, a political act by Russia to hold these sailors and use them as a pressure point on Ukraine, rather than there being any actual legal basis for their detention.
The United States and our allies in Europe, especially France and Germany, continue to work very closely together. We continue to urge implementation of the Minsk agreements, particularly a ceasefire and everything possible to facilitate humanitarian relief. The French and Germans have consistently put forward what they call a winter package of humanitarian measures that would alleviate some of the suffering for the population. We fully support that as well.
Unfortunately, the Russians have continued to occupy the territory. The Ukrainians can’t access it. And the population there continues to suffer.
I will leave it at that for now. I do look forward to your questions and to address some of them, and there are a few more points I’m sure that will come up in the course of the Q&A that I want to come back to. So let me pause there and open it up for questions.
Moderator: 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 Andrei Sitov with TASS News Agency in Russia.
Question: Hi, Ambassador. Thank you for doing the call.
You referred to the presidential election but your own intelligence said the other day they are not sure that President Poroshenko will be able to win.
So first of all, do you share that assessment? And second of all, how important is this for you? Are you confident you can work with whoever comes next and who will still be in control? Thank you, sir.
Ambassador Volker: Thank you for the question.
The starting point here is that Ukraine is a democracy and they will be having an election and in a normally functioning democracy we don’t know who is going to win until the election takes place. So in this case we really don’t know who the winner will be.
If you look at the polling data coming out in Ukraine, there is no candidate that is polling above the high teens. No one getting 20 percent or higher. So it’s very unpredictable at this stage who might actually win.
Again, stressing that Ukraine is a democracy, we will work with whatever democratically elected leader emerges after that election. We continue to support Ukraine’s sovereignty, territorial integrity, and we continue to support safety and security for all Ukrainian citizens, regardless of ethnicity, nationality or religion.
Thus far, we have not seen progress in getting to peace and security because of the continued occupation by Russia of eastern Ukraine and Crimea. I hope that no matter who is elected as President of Ukraine, and also no matter how the parliamentary elections come out later in the year, that Russia decides, finally, that it’s time to end the war and to bring about peace.
If Russia makes that decision, we are committed to doing everything that we can to facilitate that as well, in negotiations and in development of any peacekeeping and security forces that would be necessary to take care of the population while the Minsk agreements are implemented.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will turn to Henry Foy with The Financial Times.
Question: Thank you, Ambassador.
Earlier this month the Russian Foreign Ministry said it had agreed to a Franco-German plan to allow observers to go to the Kerch Strait and to monitor what is happening there.
Can you first tell us, do you support that initiative?
Secondly, who do you blame for the fact that there have been none of those observers deployed so far?
Ambassador Volker: Thank you for the question on that as well.
It’s a very important dimension to what’s been going on lately. The Russians made a unilateral assertion of control of the Kerch Strait and through that effectively controlling access to the Sea of Azov, and that is a violation of their bilateral agreement with Ukraine from 2003 on joint sovereignty over the Sea of Azov and the Kerch Strait, and there are disputes. We know from imagery, we know from video on YouTube, we know from what the Ukrainians have reported what happened in terms of the blockage of the strait, the pursuit of the Ukrainian vessels in international waters, firing upon them, and those sailors still being held by Russia.
Russia disputes some of the elements of this account, so I think having international monitors there in addition to Ukraine would be a very positive element to both create more eyes on the situation to record what Russia’s actions are and its unilateral claims of sovereignty, and to deter perhaps violence such as occurred in November.
So I think the idea of monitoring is a very important one, and I think it’s a very commendable step that France and Germany have offered to do that.
The problem arises when you get to the context in which that happens. The OSCE has the monitoring mission for Minsk implementation, which is along the so-called ceasefire line. It’s not really a ceasefire that holds, but along the so-called ceasefire line the OSCE monitoring mission is there to record what’s happening and then also to try to get access throughout the rest of the occupied area. That is a vital mission, but it has a lot of challenges executing its mandate.
The idea of monitoring in the Sea of Azov and the idea of monitoring in other areas under Ukrainian control that are not part of the conflict area is something where there have been some disputes.
The Russians argue that there is no mandate for the OSCE to allow monitoring in areas other than that mandate defined by the OSCE for the ceasefire line, so they’re saying that the French and German’s offer, while they would be acceptable to have more monitors, can’t monitor what they are intending to monitor.
The Ukrainians are also a bit skeptical. They, I think, welcome the idea of the international presence, but they don’t want to see them in a position where they are subordinated in some way through Russian political oversight which is what would be the case in the OSCE where Russia has, as a member of the OSCE, has oversight over the monitoring mission as well, and has members within the monitoring mission.
I think the best solution here would be for international monitors to be present in uncontested Ukrainian territory and on Ukrainian vessels at the invitation of Ukraine. There’s no need to go beyond that since this is not part of the conflict area. This is simply having a little bit more of a monitoring presence and visibility of what’s happening in uncontested Ukrainian territory.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Iurii Sheiko with Deutsche Welle.
Question: Hello, Ambassador. Thank you for your briefing.
I have a question. Martin Sajdik of OSCE he made his proposal of this UN OSCE mission like with military and police component of the United Nations. So what is the U.S., what does the U.S. think about this proposal? And what should, I mean how should it be done so that it can help in any way?
Ambassador Volker: Thank you for that question as well.
The fundamental issue here is whether Russia is willing to accept an international peacekeeping presence to replace the Russian forces and create genuine peace and security in the Donbas. If Russia is willing to do that, that would happen under a UN mandate and the UN would be able to establish a general environment of security which would allow for the implementation of the Minsk agreements and bring the conflict to an end.
In doing so, there are additional functions that would need to be performed. So peacekeeping would be under UN auspices, but you would need to have, for instance, policing and cooperation on policing. You would need to have an election administration. You would need to have some coordination on civilian function and coordination between the UN peacekeeping operation on the military side and the civilian administration.
So I think what Martin Sajdik is doing is outlining some of these elements that would need to be coordinated, and suggesting that some would be carried out by the OSCE, others would be by the UN. And I think the concept, you’d have to look detail by detail, but in principle, this is a useful concept.
The problem, however, is that we do not have agreement from Russia to the whole basic idea of there being a peacekeeping force to begin with. Russia continues to deny that it is occupying the territory. It continues to insist that there only be a protection force for the OSCE monitors rather than a genuine UN peacekeeping force. And that protection force would therefore be continuing to have to negotiate access to freedom of movement with the Russian-installed authorities that are there, the so-called “Peoples Republic”, just as the OSCE is having to do today.
So Russia is really not allowing any kind of movement forward in developing a peacekeeping presence to begin with, and that’s the fundamental problem.
If you had movement on that, some of the ideas that Martin Sajdik has produced, division of labor between the OSCE and the UN on certain roles, are all very sensible things to consider.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Yuliia Didenko with Donbas Public TV.
Question: Thank you very much, but my question has already been asked by the colleague before me. Thank you very much.
Moderator: We will now go to Radio Free Europe, Natalia Churikova.
Question: Thank you, Mr. Ambassador, for having this briefing.
My question is about the Ukrainian sailors who have been attacked in the neutral waters and arrested by Russia.
The fact that there were no significant sanctions for Russia for this act of aggression, does it mean that Russia can act with impunity?
Ambassador Volker: No, it doesn’t. I visited Brussels in December, had meetings with the EU and NATO, have had a number of follow-up meetings here in Washington, and I can say that both the United States and Europe are looking at what additional measures we should be taking if Russia fails to return the sailors and continues to make these assertions of control of the Kerch Strait as it is.
The U.S. in the natural course of business will be reviewing the Crimea sanctions in February. That comes up on an anniversary. The EU is looking at additional sanctions as well. Nothing has been agreed yet, and they have a minister’s meeting coming up, also in February.
In addition to that, we’ve seen other steps such as ship visits; the UK had a naval ship visit in the Black Sea in January. The United States will be having one coming up as part of the natural course of business. So I think having this presence and support for Ukraine and a rejection of the Russian claims has continued, it’s important, and Russia can’t assume the there’s any acceptance of its position and we do call on Russia immediately to release the sailors and to try to come back to a diplomatic track for resolving this crisis.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Evgeny Pudovkin with RBC in Russia.
Question: Thank you, Ambassador, for the call.
I was just wondering if you have any meetings with Mr. Surkov planned in the foreseeable future.
Ambassador Volker: We exchanged some messages around the new year, and I would very much like to resume our discussions.
As you know, after Russia attacked the Ukrainian Navy and imprisoned sailors, President Trump canceled his meeting with President Putin and I therefore ended up canceling my meeting, my intention to meet with Mr. Surkov and others in Moscow in December. I’d very much like to get back on track and to do that I hope that Russia will act quickly to release the sailors and give us a basis for moving forward.
I don’t have anything more on that yet, but we’ll continue to be in contact about what a future meeting would be.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Florian Hassel with Sueddeutsche.
Question: Thanks, Ambassador. Two questions.
First, is there an estimate as to how many Russian troops and how many as you called it created by the Russian troops is in Ukraine at this point in time? An estimate.
Secondly, you speak only, and the Europeans and the Germans for that matter, only ever about the 24 sailors. Now the Russians are continuing to block access of ships for sometimes a few days, both from Mariupol and Berdyansk. Whereas Russian ships that go to the Russian ports like Taganrog are not impeded.
Are there also sanctions on the menu considered that you would consider sanctions against these Russian ports if the free access is not further assured?
Ambassador Volker: Yes. Thank you for that question.
First of all, you’re absolutely right. While Russia has not blocked completely the access of Ukrainian vessels or other commercial vessels to Ukrainian ports, they appear to be implementing a policy of a deliberate slow-down, and slowing down the passage means adding cost to the commercial shippers, adding cost to the Ukrainian ports, which is disruptive to the economy in the region.
Again, it’s ironic that Russia claims to be interested in the well-being of the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine when all of its actions are harmful to the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine.
As for sanctions, what you are suggesting, sanctions that apply either to Russian ships that are serving the Russian ports on the Sea of Azov or otherwise addressing Russian ports on the Sea of Azov are things that I know have been brought up in the European Union. We’ve had some recent consultations with some of our EU partners just in the past few days where the topic was discussed. I know this is among the basket of options that is being reviewed in the United States as well. We don’t have any decisions on these things yet, but it is exactly in that space that I think we need to be thinking.
Again, with a view towards urging change. The goal is not sanctions in itself. The goal always is to open access to create better conditions, and what we would really very much like to see is a return to free and open movement in and out of the Kerch Strait to the Sea of Azov for all the ports that are there.
Moderator: Thank you.
For our next question we will go to Brooks Tigner with Jane’s Defence Weekly.
Question: Hi. Two quick questions if I may, Ambassador.
Aside from the Kerch Strait have there been any recent significant or observable ships and levels of Russian equipment or troops along the line of contact or the Ukraine-Russia border? Perhaps not, but if so, what conclusions do you draw from that?
Secondly, Ukraine’s Defense Minister, Stepan Poltorak, has recently doubled down again on Kyiv’s goal to accelerate its efforts to join NATO by attaining allied standards and getting the MAP, the Membership Action Plan, by 2024. Could you please reiterate what the U.S. position is on that and the prospect? Thank you.
Ambassador Volker: Sure.
First off, I think it’s always a little bit misleading to ask -- I’m not criticizing your question, but the framing is off when you say have there been recent increases in the, you know, Russian military activity or presence on the borders, the ceasefire line, Crimea or elsewhere, because you don’t need to have recent increases to have an extraordinarily large Russian military presence. They’ve been there already and they are there, and this includes fighter aircraft, it includes attack helicopters in Crimea, it includes ground forces in the occupied parts of Ukraine, it includes naval forces and riparian ships in the Sea of Azov, it includes massive Russian ground forces in Russian territory surrounding Ukraine. So there’s enough military capability there for Russia to do whatever it decides, so it doesn’t need to have a recent increase for this to be a dangerous situation.
I’m trying to recover your second question. Remind me.
Moderator: He asked about the recent significant shift in levels in Russian equipment along the line of contact; and then he asked about the Ukrainian Defense Minister seeking to accelerate efforts to join NATO.
Ambassador Volker: That’s it. Thank you very much. It was the NATO question.
So the U.S. position remains that we support Ukraine’s eventual membership in NATO. This was decided at the Bucharest Summit in 2008 and we stand fully behind that. We work very closely together with Ukraine on reforming its defense capabilities and defense establishment.
As you know, there was slow movement on that for several years after 2008. It accelerated after 2014. But there’s still a long way to go.
Being a NATO member is not only a matter of military reform, but also establishing a strong and vibrant democracy, a healthy economy, good relations with neighbors, interoperability with NATO, civilian control of the military, and so on and so on. So there’s a lot that Ukraine still has to do to be qualified to become a member of NATO, and NATO at this point does not have a consensus to offer a firm invitation, but the door to Ukrainian membership in the future remains open. And we remain committed to working together with Ukraine to help them achieve those standards.
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: I just always want to come back to the humanitarian situation in eastern Ukraine. There are over a million and a half displaced persons, which is the largest number of displaced persons in Europe, from a war in Europe since World War II. There were over 10,000 killed on the Ukrainian side, which is the largest number of people killed in a war in Europe since the wars in the Balkans in the ‘90s, and it is still going on. So this should be seen as a matter of urgency to stop the conflict and then the population that remains is suffering all kinds of hardships from heating, energy, reliable water, freedom of movement, access to pensions and access to government services, cell phone communications, food and security, medical conditions. It is really a severe stress on the local population there.
So we call upon Russia and anyone fighting in eastern Ukraine to put the priority on the well-being of the people that are there, and let’s bring this conflict to an end. Thank you.
Moderator: I want to thank you, Ambassador Volker for joining us, and thank all of you for participating and for your questions.