Russia’s Ukraine “operation” has backfired by making its former vassal state more pro-Western than ever, a U.S. diplomat has said.
“They [Russian leaders] are driving the Ukrainian people away from their historic relationship with Russia,” Kurt Volker, the US state department’s special envoy on Ukraine, told press in Brussels.
“Ukraine today is more unified, more nationalist, more oriented toward Europe and Nato and the West than has even been true before, and that’s a direct result of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and killing of Ukrainians,” he said. Russia’s actions were putting the 1.5 million or so mostly Russian-speaking Ukrainians who still lived there through a “horrific experience”, Volker noted. “The ceasefire continues to be broken every night, people continue to be killed … there’s shelling, mortar fire, sniper fire, unexploded ordinance, no freedom of movement, a collapsing economy, threats to water supply, food insecurity, pressure on healthcare,” he said.
Below is a full rush transcript of the press conference by Ambassador Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations.
Ambassador Kurt Volker: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here in Brussels to consult with the European Union in all of its various institutional forms — the Parliament, the Action Service, Members of the PFC, members of the Council, Commission and so forth.
The topic there of course is one about maintaining sanctions. It’s very important that we continue to keep sanctions in place given that Russia has not withdrawn its forces from Ukraine or made any steps really towards resolving the conflict there. The ceasefire continues to be broken every night. People continue to be killed. The local population is suffering considerably, and the humanitarian situation is quite bad.
So we are trying to keep calling attention to this. This would be resolved if Russia were to withdraw its forces and we put a proposal out there for a UN-mandated peacekeeping mission to come in and provide protection for people who live there so that it would become a safe environment and we could get on with implementing the Minsk Agreements which require local elections, special status and amnesty. Those things I think would be achievable once there’s security.
I do want to highlight, as was mentioned in the introduction, that the Ukrainian Parliament recently approved an extension of the Law on Special Status for eastern Ukraine. This is something that is part of the Minsk Agreements, something that Ukraine is committed to. And as this law was about to expire, it was also very important to Russia, and Russia was making a lot of noise about the need for Ukraine to extend this law again, and that if it failed to do so it would be a throw-back, pushing the Minsk Agreements backwards. So we’re very pleased that Ukraine was able to do that. That is now extended to the end of 2019.
In terms of our proposals and meetings, we have put forward to Russia several papers and proposals. Last fall, one on the parameters of what a UN-mandated peacekeeping mission would need to do; and more recently, this summer, I shared thoughts on how a peacekeeping mission could deploy in stages so that it would create some confidence-building and some time as it deployed. Just a practical matter of how it would need to roll out.
I received only comments from Russia criticizing that, but no proposal back from them as to what they would propose instead.
In terms of meeting, my counterpart, Mr. Surkov who I think is a very effective and reliable communicator for President Putin, we don’t have a meeting scheduled. I’m always ready and willing to meet. Would like the next time we meet to have a productive discussion, so we’re exchanging some views back and forth about where we stand in hopes that it would be productive to meet at some point in the future.
Question: Ambassador, What has the United States done to push Kyiv to really implement the Minsk Agreements? Russia has already sent to the State Department of the United States two initiatives on the Donbass crisis. Has United States given any answer to any of these two initiatives?
Ambassador Kurt Volker: Thank you very much. I think you’ve got three things here, and I’ll try to remember to get through them in the order you asked them.
First off, concerning special status and Minsk implementation. So Ukraine has responsibilities under the Minsk Agreements. These include providing special status for the territories in eastern Ukraine. Also amnesty for people who committed crimes as part of the conflict. And also the holding of local elections. And Ukraine has taken steps toward implementation of all of these. It has passed a law on special status early on, soon after the Minsk Agreements were signed, and it has repeatedly renewed that legislation including as recently as last week.
That, as you point out, is not being implemented on the ground today because Russia continues to occupy the territory. So the other pieces of the Minsk Agreements are Russia’s responsibility, which are ceasefire, withdrawal of heavy weapons, removal of illegal armed groups, and none of that has happened. Russia has taken no steps toward implementing the Minsk Agreements and there is no security in the territory where you could hold normal elections for the legitimate local authorities, and there’s no basis for the implementation of special status or amnesty at this point. That’s something that would come when Russia is doing its part to implement the Minsk Agreements as well.
This deadlock between Ukraine needing Russia to do its part in implementing the Minsk Agreements and Russia demanding more from Ukraine continues. This deadlock continues. That’s why we have proposed the introduction of a UN-mandated peacekeeping mission, because getting an unbiased UN-mandated mission in to create security on the ground would protect the population, it would create freedom of movement, it would create security, and it would create the opportunity to then see these steps under the Minsk Agreements fully implemented. Thus far, as you say, very little has been done. The introduction of the peacekeeping mission would hopefully be able to break through that deadlock.
Unfortunately, while Ukraine and the United States and France and Germany and the European Union and others all support the deployment of such a peacekeeping mission, Russia continues to disagree.
Second, you mentioned two particular proposals to which we have indeed responded. Russia proposed a draft UN Security Council Resolution in September of last year for the introduction of a UN Protection Force for the OSCE monitors. We and other members of the Security Council as well as Ukraine all responded to Russia that we cannot accept a force that is limited to the protection of the monitors as an end state because that would leave in place the so-called People’s Republics which don’t have any place in the Ukrainian constitution or in the Minsk Agreements. And we need a full-blown peacekeeping mission. So not only did we make clear that that’s our view, but we also then presented a paper in response to that in November of last year with the parameters of what a full-blown peacekeeping mission would need to do. And then the paper that I presented I believe it was in July of this year, was going into greater detail in how such a peacekeeping force could deploy, which is consistent with the discussions that I had with Mr. Surkov in January of this year.
So we did respond to that and quite substantially and we’ve not seen any new proposal from Russia since then.
And concerning the idea of a referendum, this was brought up in the context of the Helsinki meeting, and both the White House and the State Department issued statements at the time saying that we reject the idea of a referendum. Again, it has no legal basis in the Ukrainian constitution and no legal basis in the Minsk Agreements. So we were very clear at the time that that is a non-starter to have a referendum in just a portion of Ukrainian territory where a majority of the population has been displaced by Russia’s intervention.
Question: So Ukraine expects sometime in the near future to have a decision on its request for church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church. At least a couple of times recently Russian Orthodox Church officials have warned that this could cause violence in Ukraine. Do you expect this decision, whenever it’s taken, to have any impact on the security situation either in Eastern Ukraine or elsewhere in the country?
Ambassador Kurt Volker: Well, it’s tragic that you have religious leaders who then talk about resorting to violence. That would be a terrible thing, and we certainly would not want to see that.
Concerning the issue of [Aldus Sephaly] that is clearly a decision for the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and it’s a religious decision. So from the U.S. point of view, the only thing we can say is that look, we believe in the principle of religious freedom. Our country’s founded on that. And so we support the aspirations of whatever people to practice their religion as they wish to and to have the freedom and the recognition in doing so and to do so peacefully.
I hope that there are not protests and violence orchestrated as a result of this decision. I think it would be tragic to see that.
It doesn’t particularly play out differently in Eastern Ukraine as compared to the whole of Ukraine. The way the church in Ukraine has developed is that there is a Kyiv Patriarchate, there is a Moscow Patriarchate, there is a Greek, Catholic, there are all sorts of other churches there, and they’re all intertwined in terms of their geographic locations. They’re not physically separated one way or another. So you have these communities there.
What I understand to be the case is that the Ecumenical Patriarch has invited the Ukrainian churches to consolidate and present a new church to the synod in Istanbul which would then become the basis of him engaging with them directly.
We’ll see how that plays out, but I think it is something where the aspirations of Ukraine and the Ukrainian people should be respected for their religious freedom, and it’s a shame that other countries would have a view of trying to stop that.
Question: I guess you also read about media reports concerning a meeting of your Russian counterpart with Mr. Pushillin a few days ago. Surkov promised to raise salaries in the so-called [People’s] Republic. What is your reading of this promise? And have you ever spoken with Surkov about the Russian [price tag] for the republics which might get even higher if terrorists should be increased. And by the way, for the record, when did you last speak to Surkov?
Ambassador Kurt Volker: The last time we spoke in person was in January. We’ve exchanged a lot of notes back and forth since then.
In terms of the discussion about raising salaries, it’s interesting because on the one hand Russia denies responsibility for the conflict, and on the other is in the position of determining the salaries of the employees of the so-called People’s Republics. So it is clearly a very direct Russian control of these entities. Here we’re talking about control of the political entities, the so-called People’s Republics. Equally they control the military forces as well. So this is purely a Russian operation as opposed to any kind of indigenous conflict.
A second thing there, you do feel for the local population there. They are going through a horrific experience of war, of shelling, mortar fires, sniper fire, unexploded ordnance, lack of freedom of movement, collapsing economy, very few economic alternatives to working for these authorities. As I mentioned, a significant portion of the population has left. When a pre-war population might have been between four and four and a half million, you’re probably down to about a million and a half to two now. It’s a tragic situation.
I should also add, in addition to the security aspects, there’s economic depression, there are threats to the water supply, there’s food insecurity, there is disease, pressure on the health care system. All kinds of things, so you really feel for the people there. And of course it’s reasonable for them to want to be paid better.
The best case for restoring the livelihood and well-being of the population and the security of the population is for the Russian forces to get out. This would allow the return of normalization of these territories in Ukraine.
You asked specifically if I did talk about the price of Russia’s invasion with Surkov, and yes is the answer. Yes, I have. And in two ways.
One of them is the financial cost, of course, of supporting the two People’s Republics administrations as well as the military operations. This has a significant price tag that the Russian people are paying.
In addition to it, there are other costs. There is the cost to Russia of sanctions which are significant, and which are having an impact, and which the EU has done a remarkable job of keeping in place over years. So that’s a big cost to Russia.
And probably the one that is mot important is that they are driving the Ukrainian people away from their historic relationship with Russia. Ukraine today is more unified, more nationalist, more oriented towards Europe and NATO and the West than has ever been true before, and that’s a direct result of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and killing of Ukrainians. That’s something that’s not going to change as long as Russia continues to occupy this territory.
Ambassador Kurt Volker: I think that it’s just very important that we remember, and I mentioned this already, but the humanitarian situation affecting these people in Eastern Ukraine, they’re all Russian-speaking people and they’re the ones that Russia claims to care about. Yet throughout Ukraine, Russian-speaking people do just fine. You can visit them throughout the country. In Kharkiv, Sloviansk, Kyiv, Odessa. No discrimination. And in fact these Russian-speaking people feel very much Ukrainian at heart, very much betrayed by Russia.
And the only place in Ukraine where Russian-speaking people are suffering is where Russia has intervened with its military forces.
So what we really hope is that Russia is able to move beyond bringing this conflict into Ukrainian territory, withdraw its forces, and reestablish peace. With that, I think the lives of these people would improve significantly.
Thank you very much.