After 5 years of conflict, Ukraine’s barrier to peace is still ‘Russia’s political will’

The World
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The conflict in Ukraine has been going on since 2014. 

It began when Russia surreptitiously occupied and annexed the Crimean peninsula, including the key naval bases at Sevastopol, in February 2014.

In April of that year, pro-Russian elements raised the flag of insurrection in eastern Ukraine, with covert support from Putin’s Russia. Since then, the hot war has killed an estimated 14,000 people.

In all that time, what has the US been doing about Ukraine? For that update, The World’s Marco Werman spoke to Kurt Volker, US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.

“On the one hand, it’s been very important to strengthen Ukraine as a country. So in terms of its democracy, its economy, its military capabilities so that it is sustainable,” Volker says. “And it’s clear that Russia is not going to be having any kind of decisive impact on the future of the country. Ukraine has become more unified, more stable, more prosperous, more pro-Western, more pro-NATO, more pro-EU and more Russia skeptic than ever before. So in terms of any strategic objective, we’ve kind of already seen that Russia has been denied that strategic objective.”

But keeping Ukraine as a country does include that territory in the east though, doesn’t it?

Of course, yes, of course. The second piece of seeking a peace and resolution here is to hold out a hand of being willing to negotiate to bring that territory back under Ukrainian control. There are several formats for doing this. You have the Minsk Agreements, by which Russia has already agreed to return the territory to Ukraine alongside some political steps that the Ukrainians would take. That has been, frankly, spinning its wheels for years; has not resulted in an agreement yet.

You have a France-Germany-Ukraine-Russia negotiating format called the Normandy format. And then we’ve had a bilateral US-Russia channel where we’ve had some exchanges to see whether the Russians are willing and ready to engage about this, as well. Thus far, we’ve not had much progress on the diplomatic track. Russia still denies its responsibilities for leading the occupying forces and for paying for them and for preventing a ceasefire, not withdrawing their heavy weapons, not disbanding the illegal armed groups. So Russia’s in denial about that and trying to put the blame on to Ukraine. I hope, however, that with the new Ukrainian president, new Ukrainian government, there will be some new opportunities here for negotiation, as well, and that’s what we’re going to be testing in the next few weeks.

Related: 20 years of Putin in power: A timeline

So, as you say, diplomacy not really producing many results, but the Normandy format that you mentioned, the Franco-German Ukrainian talks — just yesterday Vladimir Putin said that there is no alternative to the Normandy format. So there’s buy-in there. Why is the US not involved in that process?

Well, the Normandy format was created by France and Germany with Ukraine and Russia. They very much want to keep that format the way it is and, as you heard from President Putin, he likes the format the way it is, too — the four of them without the US being a part of that grouping.

So what we do instead is we coordinate very, very closely with Ukraine directly, and then also with France and Germany so that we have a very unified and coherent message about the substance of what needs to happen to the peace established and to see the territory restored to Ukrainian control.

The problem is not the format. The problem is Russia’s political will.

They do not acknowledge what they are doing in Eastern Ukraine. They have not taken steps to bring about a meaningful ceasefire, to withdraw the heavy weapons and equipment that they have there, to stop their leadership and control and training and support of the military forces that are occupying that part of Eastern Ukraine. What we need is a more constructive Russian approach. We haven’t had that for five years. Maybe as Ukraine gets stronger and more stable and it’s clear that Russia is not gaining anything by this conflict that Russia will be, in fact, willing to eventually negotiate a solution.

Related: Ukraine’s public broadcasters want a free press. Can they survive the politics?

It’s a hope that if an agreement on Eastern Ukraine is successful, that Crimea could enter the picture at a later stage. Is that your hope?

I would hope that. I’m frankly not optimistic about that, given what we have heard from the Russians, they refused to even discuss it. So I think of this more like the situation with the Baltic states, where we had a situation where the Soviet Union took over their territory and tried to forcibly incorporate them into the Soviet Union. We issued a declaration in 1940 called the Welles Declaration, where we’ve rejected that forcible takeover and it lasted a very long time. But eventually, the Baltic states did get their independence back. And I see a similar or a parallel here with Crimea. We’re not going to see quick movement on Crimea, but likewise, no one is going to accept that it’s been taken over by Russia. And at the end of the day, I would expect that it eventually will become restored as a part of Ukraine — it’s just going to take a very long time.

Related: Pizza makers, video gamers, rockstars: Ukraine’s new parliament turns politics ‘upside down’

I’m curious, ambassador, how often do you consult with US President Donald Trump and what’s your sense of how Trump would like to see the conflict in Ukraine, as well as the occupation of Crimea, resolved?

Well, I think that he said in his very first meeting with President Putin that Ukraine matters and that this is in the way of establishing a better US-Russia relationship. And that is proven to be true over the last couple of years, that we haven’t made progress anywhere as this is still in the way. So I’m in very close contact with the entire team. I’ve met with the president and we’ve talked through where we are. The president is very skeptical, frankly, that Russia has the intention to end the conflict or walk away or come to a real resolution, but he’s willing to keep a hand outstretched to try, if Russia is willing. And that’s what we need to be doing.

Related: In shadow of war, Ukrainians seek to vote for peace

Ambassador, you serve as US peace envoy for Ukraine on a voluntary basis. You still hold your day job as head of the McCain Institute for International Leadership as part of Arizona State University. I mean, you know this part of the world and I know you’re doing your best, but shouldn’t the US have someone focused on this full time?

We have a great team of people here, and I think the fact that I can do this on a voluntary basis — I spend a lot of time on this, I’m off to Ukraine again this weekend, I was there last month. I’ve had four meetings with the new president since he started running for election. There’s a lot of engagement here. And in addition to my efforts, we have a lot of other people that are committed to this. I work very closely with all of them. And I think it has actually produced, I have to say, a more positive result than some people might have thought a couple of years ago … [that has] strengthened the situation for Ukraine and made Russia’s invasion, occupation less and less tenable.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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