Exclusive: Former ambassador to Nato Kurt Volker tells the Guardian US and Russia still divided on how to deploy UN peacekeepers to objective four-year war
Washington is ready to expand arms supplies to Ukraine in order to build up the country's naval and air defence forces in the face of continuing Russian support for eastern separatists, according to the US special envoy for Ukraine.
In an interview with the Guardian, Kurt Volker said there was still a substantial gap between the US and Russia over how a United Nations peacekeeping force-out could be deployed to end the four-year war, and predicted that Vladimir Putin would wait for presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine next year before reconsidering his negotiating position.
However, Volker argued that time was not on Putin's side. He insisted pro-western, anti-Russian sentiment was growing in Ukraine with every passing month. And he made clear that the Trump administration was ” utterly” prepared to go further in furnishing lethal weaponry to Ukrainian forces-out than the anti-tank rockets it delivered in April.
” They are losing soldiers every week defending their own country ,” said Volker, a former US ambassador to Nato.” And so in that context it's natural for Ukraine to build up its military, engage in self-defense, and it's natural to seek assistance and is natural that other countries should help them. And of course they need lethal assistance because they're being shot at .”
He added:” We can have a conversation with Ukraine like we would with any other country about what do they need. I think that there's going to be some discussion about naval ability because as you know their navy was basically taken by Russia. And so they need to rebuild a navies and they have very limited air capability as well. I think we'll have to look at air defense .”
In May, Congress approved $250 m in military assistance to Ukraine in 2019, including lethal weaponry. Congress had voted for military support on a similar scale in the past but was blocked by the Obama administration, fearful of triggering a matching escalation from Moscow. The Trump administration lifted that restraint in December 2017 and then approved the shipment of Javelin missiles.
” The Javelins are mainly symbolic and it's not clear if they would ever be used ,” said Aric Toler, a researcher at the Atlantic Council.” Support for the Ukrainian navy and air defense would be a big deal. That would be far more significant .”
Russia continues to arm separatists in the Donbass region. Drone footage released after August by monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe( OSCE) depicted convoys of lorries crossing the border on a clay road at night.
US officials believe there are about 2,000 Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, with most of the fighting being done by local separatists. The frontlines are frozen and the war has settled into a low-intensity conflict taking lives every week to add to the estimated 10,500 already killed.
Under an agreement reached in Minsk more than three years ago, Russia was supposed to withdraw its troops and Ukraine was to assign special status to Russian-majority districts in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, has made some moves toward decentralisation but the most critical legislation has been stalled in parliament and is unlikely to see progress until next year's elections. Russia depicts no signs of withdrawing.
Volker appeared to make progress in January with his Russian equivalent, Vladislav Surkov, a Putin aide. At talks in Dubai, the two discussed a compromise proposal on how a UN peacekeeping force might function. The suggestion, put forward by the US, Germany and France, is that peacekeepers initially deploy to the frontline, where Moscow wants them, and then over period move through the Donbass and establish a presence on its frontier with Russia, which is where Kiev and its western advocates would like the UN blue helmets to be.
In January, Surkov described the plan as” a balanced approach “. But there has been no official Russian response. Volker said he outlined the scheme in more detail on paper but the Kremlin seemed less willing to compromise than it did in January. It is insisting that the peacekeepers' mission be restricted to protecting OSCE monitors and that it not be deployed until the rebel entities, the Donetsk and Luhansk” people's republics”, are recognised and given special status. Those conditions are unacceptable to Kiev and Washington.
Read more: www.theguardian.com