By Alex Gorka
“Kurt Volker is an experienced and tough-minded diplomat who knows how to combine principles and pragmatism into policy. He is widely respected across the political spectrum,” said Paul Saunders, the executive director of the Center for the National Interest and a former George W. Bush administration official, in his comments on Kurt Volker’s appointment as the Trump administration’s special envoy charged with ending the war in Ukraine. “The fact that they appointed [Volker] is a sign this administration is serious about Ukraine,” John Herbst, former US ambassador to Kiev, told Foreign Policy. “The United States remains fully committed to the objectives of the Minsk agreements, and I have complete confidence in Kurt to continue our efforts to achieve peace in Ukraine”, said State Secretary Rex Tillerson, emphasizing that the Minsk accords were the basis for the diplomatic endeavor.
Indeed, the hopes were high. It was widely believed that a diplomat with experience as rich as Kurt Volker’s was the right man for the job. Five months has passed since his appointment in July. The negotiation process is stalled and there is no light at the end of the tunnel.
His talks with Vladislav Surkov, an aide to Russian President Vladimir Putin, were to promote the revival of the dialogue on the implementation of Minsk accords to resolve Ukraine’s crisis. The US-Russia contacts were expected to give a new lease on life to the negotiation process as the Normandy group failed to get ahead. The US envoy has not met the expectations.
In a new interview for The Global Politico, Kurt Volker concluded that his recent meeting with Vladislav Surkov in Belgrade on November 13 on a UN peacekeeping mission in Donbass, was a “step back“. In his answer to the question if President Trump wants peace, Volker said “He wants Ukraine to get its territory back. It’s crystal clear.” He talked at length about the troubled relations with Russia despite Donald Trump’s hopes to improve them. According to the envoy, the several rounds of talks he has held with Russian envoy Surkov have not led anywhere.
Overall, Volker said, prospects for peace are dim and there is an at least 80 percent chance that the fighting in Ukraine will spark again. He believes that nobody else but Russia is to blame for this state of things. “Russia brings it on,” the envoy noted. “That’s what the president always says: We would like to get along with Russia. But what Russia is doing makes it really hard.”
This is a very provocative interview for a diplomat on active service, expressing official views. In another statement made last month, he said the self-proclaimed republics have no say on the issue. But the Minsk accords cannot be implemented without their participation. This approach can hardly be called constructive.
It should be taken into account that his previous job was executive director of the institute started by Senator John McCain, a well-known Russia hawk. Besides, Kurt Volker took on the post only in a temporary, volunteer capacity, to make him care less about the consequences of what he says.
Despite the statements made by Ambassador Volker, Dmitry Peskov, the Russian president’s spokesman, was reserved in his comments, saying Moscow still hoped for a constructive approach on the part of the US to revive the Minsk process and make a contribution into a peaceful settlement.
According to the Russian envoy, after the meeting Volker presented 29 separate paragraphs to the Russian side for consideration and Vladislav Surkov agreed with only three of them. The US insists that a UN contingent in Ukraine should be deployed throughout the entire disputed territory – from the contact line to the Ukrainian-Russian border stretch between Russia and the self-proclaimed republics – with no Russian forces operating as a part of international contingent.
Kurt Volker is a strong advocate for arms sales to Ukraine. He made clear in the interview that he supports the idea. The US envoy appointed to bring peace calls for selling lethal weapons to a party to the conflict while there is no settlement in sight!
The Pentagon and the State Department have recommended President Trump to approve a $47 million package of arms, including Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine. The supplies may provoke Russia into sending weapons to the other side of the conflict and, thus, escalate the already high tensions. Even if the US is sincere in its desire to bring peace, quite the opposite will happen. It should be noted that while arms supplies to inflame the conflict are an option, the US has never exposed its vision of the self-proclaimed republics’ future.
Kurt Volker knows better than others that gross irresponsibility and corruption reign supreme among the Ukraine’s ruling elite. Ukraine tops the world corruption rating. Arms shipments to Ukraine are risky because they can get into the wrong hands. Despite all that, the US ambassador backs the plan to arm Kiev with US-made lethal weapons.
It happens that the Minsk accords are not considered to be the basis for negotiations anymore. Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov has just said that the Minsk accords were “dead” and not worth talking about. He believes they “were needed for a ceasefire.” It strikes the eye that neither Kurt Volker nor any other US official made a statement to condemn what Avakov said, as if the Ukrainian minister’s statement had not contradicted the US position on the issue.
Mr. Volker’s mission as a US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations has come close to failure. It could have been otherwise, but the statements of the US envoy make believe that the stated desire for peace negotiations is insincere. Like in the case of the Normandy group’s effort, the process is stymied and the expectations are dashed. There is still a fighting chance to rectify the situation if Mr. Volker changes his attitude and becomes as pragmatic as he was predicted to be.