January 26, 2018

Russian willingness to end Donbas conflict ‘not evident,’ says Volker


BRUSSELS – The U.S. special envoy for Ukraine says the Minsk accords – the Western-backed blueprint for ending the war between Kyiv and Russia-backed separatists – have not been implemented because Moscow has not shown “willingness to implement them.”

Speaking in Brussels ahead of a trip to Ukraine and a meeting with his Kremlin counterpart in Dubai on January 26, U.S. envoy Kurt Volker also said that Moscow’s military actions in Ukraine have “produced the opposite” of what he called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s objective of maintaining a “Russia-friendly Ukraine” that is “part of Russia’s orbit.”

Ambassador Volker was appointed in July 2017 as the U.S. special representative for negotiations to end a war that has killed more than 10,300 people and badly damaged Russia’s relations with its neighbors, as well as the European Union and the United States.

He made the remarks on January 22 but authorized their publication on January 24.

His talks with Putin aide Vladislav Surkov two days later could help Washington gauge whether Russia is willing to take concrete steps to end the war and improve relations with the West. Mr. Volker said that the best way for Russia to do that would be to take steps to unblock the implementation of the Minsk accords, which Russia signed along with Ukraine and the separatists in February 2015.

“What we need is Russia’s willingness to implement them and so far that has not been evident,” Mr. Volker said.

“This is an issue where people are still dying every week right on Europe’s doorstep, and it is involving Russia conducting warfare, taking territory by force, which is something that really challenges the basis of European security as a whole,” he said.

More economic pressure

In an article published on January 22, The Wall Street Journal cited unnamed U.S. officials as saying that, if peace negotiations fail to make progress in the coming months, Washington plans to push for more economic pressure on Russia.

The United States and the EU have imposed an array of sanctions on Russia over its March 2014 seizure of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula and its role in the war in eastern Ukraine, where the militants it supports hold parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts.

In the coming days, the U.S. Treasury Department is due to release a report that is expected to name hundreds of Kremlin-connected insiders and business leaders who could later be hit with a fresh wave of U.S. sanctions.

Mr. Volker said that he is “not expecting much new from Russia” regarding the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

“If it comes to consultations about these things, we are ready to talk with Russia anywhere,” he said. “We are open to consultations, but the idea is that Russia has got to change its actions. And if it does, then we can see the Minsk agreements actually implemented, something we haven’t seen to this point.”

Mr. Volker said the Minsk process is very clearly set out in the accords: “ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, elections, amnesties, special status, returning [control over] the border [with Russia in separatist-held areas] to Ukraine, re-establishment of Ukraine’s sovereignty.”

He said one possible step forward, but “by no means the only option,” for advancing the implementation of the Minsk agreements, would be to send a U.N. peacekeeping force into eastern Ukraine that “could control the territory, including the Ukrainian side of the Russian border.”

“That would create time and space where the other pieces of Minsk could be implemented,” Mr. Volker said.

The deployment of international peacekeepers on Ukraine’s border with Russia would be aimed in part to prevent Russia from sending fighters, weapons and ammunition into Ukraine to support the separatists – something Moscow denies doing despite what Kyiv and NATO say is incontrovertible evidence.

Inflicting ‘new pain’

Between Brussels and Dubai, Ambassador Volker traveled to Ukraine and met with President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv on January 23.

Mr. Poroshenko’s office said they discussed ways of “boosting international efforts to restore Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” and voiced concern about Russia’s failure to fulfill obligations under the Minsk agreements.

In a post on Twitter, Mr. Volker said he “had a good conversation” with the Ukrainian president.

In his comments in Brussels, Mr. Volker said he believes Mr. Putin ultimately wants “a Ukraine that is pro-Russian, part of Russia’s broader family.”

“That’s the irony because they have created the opposite” by “invading and taking over… territory” in Ukraine,” he said.

“It has produced a Ukraine that is more unified, more nationalist, more Western-oriented than ever before,” Mr. Volker said, adding that the Kremlin does not “need to have this territory to pursue Russia’s objective.”

“The occupation of this territory is actually setting that back,” he said. “So even though their talking points are something else for public consumption, I think they do understand” that the intervention “has not gone very well.”

However, Mr. Volker also said sanctions imposed against Russia by the United States and EU since 2014 are no longer inflicting the “new pain” he suggested was needed to pressure Russia.

“Most of the businesses that have been affected by that have adjusted, so you are not having new pain attaching to business interests,” he noted.

With reporting by RFE/RL correspondent Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels; Bloomberg Business News, The Wall Street Journal, Kommersant, and Interfax.

Copyright 2018, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20036; www.rferl.org (for the full text of this story, see https://www.rferl.org/a/ukraine-volker-russia-willingness-end-conflict/28994196.html).