KYIV – U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit on July 9 re-affirmed America’s consistent policy toward helping Ukraine preserve sovereignty amid a prolonged war with Russia that has killed more than 10,100 people and severed 7 percent of the country’s territory.
Speaking after Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, Mr. Tillerson said that Washington’s goal is to “restore Ukraine’s territorial… integrity.”
Stating that U.S. and European Union sanctions in response to Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine will remain in force, America’s top diplomat said that he has been “clear in my discussions with [the] Russian leadership on more than one occasion that it is necessary for Russia to take the first steps to de-escalate the situation in the east part of Ukraine, in particular by respecting the ceasefire, by pulling back the heavy weapons.”
Referring to the two so-called Minsk peace agreements, to which Ukraine, France, Germany and Russia are signatories, Mr. Tillerson called on “Russia to honor its commitments that were made” and “exercise influence over the separatists in the region whom they do hold complete control over” and “call on their proxies to cease the violence that is ongoing in east Ukraine.”
Otherwise, “the U.S. and EU sanctions on Russia will remain in place until Moscow reverses the actions that triggered these particular sanctions,” Mr. Tillerson said in reference to the Kremlin’s illegal annexation of the Ukrainian territory of Crimea in March 2014 and subsequent invasion of the easternmost regions of Luhansk and Donetsk a month a later.
During his trip, the secretary of state announced the appointment of a new American envoy to find lasting peace in the simmering Donbas war that Russia started unprovoked: Kurt Volker, a former ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (2008-2009).
He replaces former Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland who had played that role in the Obama administration.
“This is indicative of the appointment of – again, of Ambassador Volker for a more direct engagement… We are going to be exploring ways to change the status quo, because continuing to leave things the way they are is simply not acceptable,” Mr. Tillerson said of the new envoy who last served as executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership in Washington.
“It is largely undisputed, in both Washington and Moscow, that in choosing Volker, Rex Tillerson has opted to appoint a Russia hawk who also believes in diplomacy,” reported The National Interest, an international affairs magazine.
Mr. Volker’s appointment also means that President Donald Trump, who attended the Group of 20 meeting in Berlin on July 7-8, is looking for a “success story” amid allegations that his inner circle had colluded with Russia during his presidential campaign.
“U.S. policy towards Ukraine remains consistent… it doesn’t mean Kyiv will receive lethal weapons… but Trump is looking for overseas success opportunities and the American president’s meeting with his Russian counterpart [Vladimir Putin in Berlin] shows he won’t be persuaded to back down,” Taras Berezovets, founder of the Ukrainian Institute for the Future, a Kyiv-based policy center, told The Ukrainian Weekly by phone.
On his part, President Poroshenko said the country is committed to a “peaceful settlement” with Moscow.
“Time and again, I underscore Kyiv did not plan, did not start this war,” Mr. Poroshenko said on July 9 in his opening statement at a press availability following his meeting with Secretary Tillerson. “Ukrainian troops are not present in the Russian territory. We did not plan the war… It was planned and started in Moscow. That’s why the keys to peaceful settlement are in Moscow.”
Afterwards, Mr. Tillerson said of Ambassador Volker that his “wealth of experience makes him uniquely qualified to move this conflict in the direction of peace” and added, “The U.S. 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.”
In another high-profile visit in Kyiv, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg of Norway on July 10 said that “Russia” must remove “thousands of troops” from Ukraine.
Although Mr. Poroshenko didn’t commit to formally submitting a bid for official NATO accession, the president said Ukraine is committed to joining the 29-member defensive alliance.
He signed a law on July 6 that makes membership in the alliance a foreign policy priority and promised to continue reforms that would meet membership standards by 2020.
“Ukraine has clearly defined its political future and its future in the sphere of security,” Mr. Poroshenko told reporters as he stood alongside the NATO secretary-general.
So far, more than 1.7 million Ukrainians have been internally uprooted from their homes due to Russia’s war, according to the United Nations, signifying the largest displacement of people on the European continent since World War II. Hundreds of thousands more have fled to neighboring Russia, Belarus, Moldova and Poland.
During his visit to Kyiv on July 9, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the international body is committed to establishing peace in the Moscow-instigated war.
“You can be sure that for us this is something that we keep in the agenda. It is not a forgotten situation,” he said at a news conference with President Poroshenko.
“The human rights bodies of the U.N. are, of course, active in relation to the situation, and, as it is known, the high commissioner [for human rights] will be providing also his report on the human rights situation in Crimea in due time,” he noted.
Meanwhile, overnight on July 12, one Ukrainian soldier was killed in the east, according to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense. Over all, 24 servicemen were killed in action in June and more than 125 were wounded.