Kurt Volker: We Will See Successful Ukrainian Counter Offenses This Year, Then Russians Will Have a Hard Winter

Ambassador Kurt Volker has been known to Ukrainians since 2017, when he was appointed as Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations – first to promote the Normandy format, then for all negotiations related to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, and later in general in US-Ukraine relations, when there was no American ambassador at that time. In September 2019, before the start of the impeachment proceedings, he resigned, and his testimony became one of the bases of the accusations against Donald Trump.

This is just one indicator that Volker is a diplomat ready to talk tough and tell the truth. When he worked with Ukrainian, his direct statements about Russian aggression became his trademark and changed the American agenda regarding Ukraine.

He is no less sincere now being an analyst, Distinguished Fellow at Center for European Policy Analysis.

We met during Kurt Volker’s private visit to Kyiv. This conversation, which outlines the war’s future scenario, hints at Russia’s possible collapse, explains how Ukraine will join NATO, etc., definitely deserves your attention.

“We will see successful Ukrainian counter offenses this year”

– Is Ukraine winning the war?

– I think so, yes. And let me explain what I mean by that. Russia and Putin, in particular, sought out to eliminate Ukraine as a state, as a people, as a culture, as an identity. And he has utterly failed. It was impossible for him to do that, and I think that’s now obvious. Ukraine survives as a sovereign independent European democracy. This is winning. Right now we are an independent democracy, but I cannot say that we have won. Well, I think there are. Two different things, one of them is. Does Ukraine survive as a sovereign European democracy? Yes, it does. No question.

Second thing is – are you able to push Russia out of all of your territory? That is something that we don’t know yet. I know that is the goal. We are, the United States and others, supporting you and trying to give you as much weaponry as possible so you can do that.

We don’t know how that comes out, but we do know that Ukraine survives. Russia needs to accept that it has to live within its own borders. Russia which insists on attacking other countries and taking their territory is a permanent danger. So none of us should be satisfied if that’s Russia, we still have.

– At what point we can say that Ukraine has won this war?

– Ukraine has to get all of its territories back, including Crimea. We were talking here, probably in this same room, five years ago. It was easy then to say, look, Russia has no interest in Donbas that can be solved, hopefully soon. Getting Crimea back will take a longer period of time.

But now, the whole war is broken out. Everything is on the table. I know that Putin’s imperial appetite will not go away.

So even Crimea remaining in Russian hands now is too risky.

Russia has made it clear. Putin has made clear that there is no end of the war until he achieves a complete takeover of Ukraine. Denazification and demilitarization as he says. And two weeks ago, Lavrov repeated that. So that’s where the Russians are.

When you are faced with that kind of enemy, there is no compromise that Ukraine cannot accept to be overtaken by Russia. It, therefore, has to fight to regain control of its territory. Putin or Russia has to accept to live within its own territory.

– Sir, any prognosis looks too unclear, but let’s try it. Will it take years, decades?

– If we look at the remainder of this year, I think we will see Ukrainian counter offenses that are successful, retaking some key territory. We look ahead into next year.

I think we will see Ukraine continuing to try to push the Russians back further out of Ukrainian territory, probably with some success. And also winter will have an impact on the forces of Ukraine, but also the forces of Russia.

As I look at it, the Russian forces are going to be overextended, but too far afield for them to be able to reliably get food, fuel ammunition warmth in the wintertime.

The Russian forces are going to have a hard winter, and that means that it creates some opportunities for Ukraine.

It also means that when you emerge from the winter in the spring, the Russian forces are going to be in a depleted position, so I don’t think it necessarily means that whatever is achieved this fall is the end.

It may result in a pause during the winter, but I think that it’s not a pause that favors Russia.

“The U.S. government, the Biden administration wants to create some kind of limits”

– Does it mean the United States is ready to help Ukraine win the war?

– My view: we must be in that position. We must say: ‘Yes, it is in our interest to see Ukraine win the war because we don’t want to live with an aggressive, imperialist Russia in the future. So Ukraine can stop that.’ U.S. policy, talking now about what we see from the U.S. administration from President Biden, doesn’t use that language. They say we will do everything possible for as long as it takes to make sure that Ukraine survives. That Ukraine is not defeated.

– What is the reason for such a cautious approach of the U.S.?

– It is very clear that they do not want to do things that can give the impression that we, the United States, are in a direct conflict with Russia because…

– But Putin repeats that every day I fear.

– I know! I’m giving you the answer to your question why they are doing that. The U.S. government, the Biden administration wants to create some kind of limits. So that they can say we’re not in a direct conflict with Russia. It is Russia’s attacks on Ukraine. We’re helping Ukraine defend itself. So they’re not doing everything that we possibly could.

They’re setting limits. I don’t agree with that.

I think that’s the wrong approach, as you said. Putin views us as directly involved in the conflict anyway.

– Do you see it as a genuine explanation by the administration?

– Yes, I think they’re sincere. I just think that they’re wrong. I don’t understand why we would not support a multirole aircraft being transferred to Ukraine.

– So what is the reason? To not start WWIII?

– Yes, that’s what people say. I look at that differently. What I would say is Putin’s imperialist ideology is the same ideology that took us into WWWII. And confronting Putin is not going to create WWIII. Not confronting Putin is going to bring us into WWIII.

“Russia should come to terms with its own status”

– Well, Putin will not disappear, even if Ukraine wins. Even if he does, it would not change the whole of Russia. What will happen with Russia?

– Well, that’s a great question because on the one hand, I think Putin has led Russia down a disastrous path. He has led already to the destruction of half of Russia’s conventional military capability. He has led to global isolation of Russia’s economy, an inability to import some critical items, a degradation of the quality of life in Russia. This is only going to get worse. This is not going to get better. This is destroying Russia and I think the Russian people will gradually come to realize that Putin has led them down a terrible path.

At the same time, whether it is Putin or whether it is someone else, it’s essential that Russia come to terms with its own status. Russian needs to be comfortable as a country, without insisting on being an empire.

– I’m afraid that Russia, not being an empire, means that there will be several countries on that territory.

– Yeah. I think any of us outside Russia can really comment on it. This is something for the inside of Russia, for those who are part of Russia. There are clearly a lot of regions in Russia and clearly a lot of frustration with Moscow. But that’s not for us. We look at Russia as a state. We recognize Russia within its borders. What we insist on, though, is that Russia remains within its borders and does not try to take over its neighbors.

– I think the West should start thinking about what will happen if Russia collapses. It is the same as what happened with the U.S. and Soviet Union.

– Right. Well, when the Soviet Union did collapse, there were a couple of important things. One of them was getting humanitarian assistance to the population. The U.S. provided all kinds of airlifts to all kinds of places in the former Soviet space to make sure that there is no human deprivation.

Another was fissile material, nukes. Trying to make sure that fissile material, nuclear material, was not getting into terrorist hands.

The third thing was trying to establish a constructive relationship with a new government. In this case, a Russian government, which we did for a while until Putin came to power.

“Rule of law is the main framework of reforms”

– How would you describe the relations with Ukraine in general?

– I’d say that these are very close. The U.S. has tremendous support for Ukraine. The most important thing Ukraine would not have survived without the military support the United States has given Ukraine. So that’s key.

Second thing is that Ukrainians, I think are justifiably frustrated sometimes because the U.S. says no before we say yes. Because we’re too slow in providing assistance. Because we’re trying to slice it somehow.

We say, well, we’ll do this, but we won’t do that. Even President Biden’s article in the New York Times had the title ‘What we’ll do for Ukraine and what we won’t do for Ukraine.’ That’s very frustrating for Ukrainians because they are fighting for their country and their survival.

And how can that be something you do halfway? So I think there’s a built-in frustration there, but ultimately I think there is also very strong support and a very good relationship.

– What kinds of reforms are the most important for the United States?

– I think rule of law is the main framework. There needs to be confidence in a legal and regulatory framework that private businesses can rely upon.

I’ll give you an illustration from before the war. There is a policy put in place here in Ukraine to have so-called investment nannies. If an investor is putting in more than $50 million worth of investment, someone will be assigned from the government to make sure they don’t have any obstacles from government bureaucracies and don’t face any corruption problems. Well, that’s nice, but it’s also a red flag. It tells you there are problems and those problems aren’t being solved.

Instead, we’re going to help you get around them. What’s really needed is to make sure there aren’t problems. So those kinds of reforms reinforce the rule of law and reinforce the confidence of business. That they can invest and produce, and grow, and hire employees, and repatriate profits if necessary. But grow more in the country again.

Those are the things that businesses need to have confidence. As we look at the next phase here of investing in Ukraine’s recovery and development, we again have to focus on the private sector. We have to make sure that the conditions are created where businesses will have confidence because government aid will come in. There’s a need for government aid and it’ll be spent and then that’s it. Then it’s done.

What Ukraine needs is a vibrant economy and the economy is not run by the government. The economy is run by the private sector.

“I’m not aware of anyone having any doubts about Andrii Yermak”

– There are some rumors, and statements, for instance, by Victoria Sparks, but not only her, the real problem is an absence or lack of tracking of U.S. aid.

– I think she means well but she’s getting poor information. She is also playing into the hands of those who don’t want to support Ukraine. We have minorities in the far left and far right who would rather appease Russia or would rather be isolationist for the United States. And those arguments help those people.

The reality is the weapons being delivered are getting where they are needed. We see evidence of that. We see what the HIMARS are firing at. We see those bridges coming down and those ammunition depots being blown up. We know it is getting where it’s needed and it is being effective. I think we really need to reject these arguments that there’s no accountability or transparency. That’s simply wrong.

– Is there a chance that weapons supplied by the U.S. can be smuggled somewhere?

– Is there a chance? Of course, there’s always a chance of anything. Is it the dominant thing happening that we should be worried about? No, we should be worried about not having enough weapons fast enough coming into Ukraine.

– What do US political players think about Andrii Yermak?

– I have seen this letter that Victoria Sparks, a congresswoman from Iowa, wrote. I think this is very unhelpful. It gives, maybe unwillingly, arguments to people on the appeasement left and on the isolationist right who don’t want to help Ukraine.

President Zelensky has done an extraordinary job, leading his country through the war. Andrii Yermak is his chief of staff and a critical part of the team. The U.S. government is very happy to work with President Zelensky and his team.

I’m not aware of anyone having any doubts about any individuals in President Zelensky team, including Andrii Yermak.

– Many people in Ukraine think that Mr. Yermak was somehow involved in the failure of the Wagner operation several years ago. And this operation allegedly was coordinated with the United States. Is that possible, if that was true, the United States would work with such a person?

– This is a conspiracy theory piled up on a conspiracy theory. That’s not the basis on which anyone in the U.S. is going to be thinking about people here or making decisions about our relationship. What’s more often the case, and I think this is a good example, is information planted about people to discredit them. So it might influence the way people think about them and we have to be very careful not to get sucked down that road.

– Is that OK for the United States to see in Ukraine such a strong person as head of the presidential administration when the person was not elected?

– Again, let’s be clear. President Zelensky is elected. It is wartime in Ukraine. He has done an outstanding job leading his country. He is deciding what he needs around him as his team to get this country through the war. And we have to respect that. We should work with him and his team as closely as we can to support that.

“Ukraine will join NATO after the war”

– Do you believe that Ukraine will become a NATO member?

– Yes, I don’t think there’s any security for Ukraine without NATO. I think that Russia’s war has shown that it is not safe to be a neutral country or a non-aligned country in Europe. The Finnish and Swedish decisions to join NATO mean that. We can’t come out of this with gray zones where Russia feels free to attack again. When the war is over, we have to come back to this question. Ukraine should be a member of NATO.

– Will NATO members agree with that?

– In fact, the U.S. had not been pushing the Ukrainian NATO membership since 2008. Yes, you’re right, there’s skepticism. I think Russia’s aggression here has changed everything. Maybe not everyone assesses the changes the same way today. But as you look ahead into the future, Ukraine will win this war. There will be a peace of some kind. Russia will be changed somehow as a result of its ill-fated aggression. There won’t be security in Europe unless Ukraine is part of NATO.

–  I guess George as well.

– Georgia as well. Yes, Georgia has some advantages: smaller country, well-trained armed forces, close relationship with the U.S. It has disadvantages: geography, 20% of the territory occupied by Russia with no real prospect of moving that at the moment. It is not as clear. I think once we get into this discussion about closing the gray zones in Europe, Georgia will be a part of it.

– I’m not sure 100% that Ukraine will regain all its territories, the same applies to Georgia. Is that possible to join NATO with temporary occupied territories?

– Former secretary General of NATO Rasmussen laid this clearly out at a conference in Georgia a few years ago. It’s called Rasmussen Formula. I think this is the way to do it. You have NATO and the country involved mutually agree not to retake territories by force. So Georgia and NATO would say we don’t support taking up Abkhazia and South Ossetia by force. We do support their peaceful reintegration into Georgia. We will make Georgia a member of NATO and Article 5 will apply to the non-occupied territories immediately and the occupied territories only after they are reintegrated peacefully.

The case of Ukraine is different now because Russia has opened all of this up with its war. I think that Ukraine needs to fight and take back all of its territories now. It’s too dangerous for Ukraine to let Russia occupy pieces of Ukraine. That’s what I hear from my Ukrainian friends and counterparts. Ukraine will fight and try to retake the territory. At some point, if there is a piece, then the Rasmussen formula could apply again

– Years? Decades?

– As I said we don’t know, but something could snap on the Russian side. They might decide to get out of Ukraine and establish peace again. As I said earlier, Putin is destroying Russia. He’s destroying the military. He’s destroying the economy. He is destroying any kind of political development. He lies to his people about it.

Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko

“European Pravda” editor, https://www.eurointegration.com.ua/eng/interview/2022/08/9/7144609/

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