WASHINGTON, DC – Just a few hours from Germany, Europe’s largest economy, a Ukrainian soldier is killed every three days defending the territory of his country inside its borders, according to the Trump administration’s special representative to the Ukraine conflict Amb. Kurt Volker.
“There’s fighting every night: mortars, tank rounds, sniper fire, artillery,” Volker told an audience at the Washington-based think-tank Center for the National Interest on Monday. “It’s very much a hot war.”
So far, he said, about 10,000 people have been killed and two million people displaced. In the contested areas, access to cell phone service, water, electricity, or gas is sometimes shut off. Collecting a pension payment can mean traveling across a dangerous ceasefire line to get to Ukrainian-controlled territory.
“It’s both a hot war and a significant humanitarian issue,” Volker said. “Right in Europe, right there, a couple hours flight from Munich. It’s really striking.”
He said that, currently, there are about 100,000 Russian forces surrounding three borders of Ukraine, with about 30,000 Russian forces and military contractors and “hundreds and hundreds of tanks” inside eastern Ukraine.
In February 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea, months after its Russia-friendly president, Viktor Yanukovych, fled to Russia following political protests. After annexing Crimea with little bloodshed, Russian forces moved to take parts of eastern Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union and home to Russian-speaking people.
The move set off an international firestorm, prompting the European Union and the U.S. to enact punishing sanctions against Moscow, NATO to beef up its military presence in the Baltic region, and the U.S. to increase its security assistance to Kiev.
Ukraine and Russia entered into what is known as the Minsk Agreements, aimed at resolving the conflict, but Volker said, “nothing’s happening.”
Volker said he was tapped last year by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to re-engage the U.S. in resolving the conflict with the goals of restoring “sovereignty and territorial integrity” to Ukraine and ensuring the safety and security of all Ukrainian citizens regardless of ethnicity, nationality, and religion.
He said the Trump administration has taken several steps to “focus” Russia on its choices. First was to treat the issue with clarity, so that Russia cannot claim plausible deniability, he said.
“Russia continues to deny publicly its activities and presence in Ukraine,” he said. “The Russians claim that Russian-speaking people or ethnic Russians in Ukraine are somehow under threat and therefore need protection, which is a justification for Russia’s involvement.”
“The reality is … the only place in Ukraine where Russian-speaking people face security problems is where the Russian forces are, and that’s because they generate the conflict, which is then putting pressure on that population,” he said.
A second step was to shore up the sanction regimes in the EU and the U.S., to make sure they are coordinated. The Trump administration also enacted new sanctions last month. Third, he said, was the lifting of the restriction of U.S. arms sales to Ukraine.
In December, President Trump lifted a restriction on “lethal” weapons like anti-tank missiles for Ukrainian forces implemented by the Obama administration, which would only allow “non-lethal” weapons such as counter-battery radars.
Volker said lifting the restriction was “terribly important” – not as a battlefield game-changer, but because it will help save Ukrainian lives and help prevent any further Russian incursion into Ukraine.
However, he characterized the situation as being at an impasse at the moment.
He is hoping that the introduction of a UN peacekeeping mission in Ukraine will move things forward. Currently, he said, Kiev is unable to implement required political reforms under the Minsk Agreements because “there’s no security and they can’t access the territory.”
Those reforms include giving special status of territory in eastern Ukraine, holding local elections, and granting amnesty to pro-Russian sympathizers who have committed war-related crimes.
Volker said the Russians have been receptive to a peacekeeping mission, but that the U.S. is waiting to hear back from Moscow. He said not too much is expected in advance of Russian presidential elections in March.
But he struck a hopeful tone on resolution of the conflict, which he said does not benefit Russia.
“They are stuck with the costs of what they have already taken,” he said, in addition to EU and U.S. sanctions.
He said the Trump administration has made it clear there “won’t be an improved U.S.-Russia relationship without resolving this conflict.” He added there is no real EU-Russia relationship, the and military operation is costing Russia about five billion per year.
“What Russia really wanted out of this was to change the government in Kiev, or install a Russia-friendly government in Kiev,” he said. Instead, he said, the Russian incursion produced a more Western-oriented Ukraine “than ever existed.”
He indicated the ball is in Russia’s court.
“We are very frustrated and disappointed that Russia has not done anything to resolve the conflict in this six month period,” he concluded, “but I think they have taken careful note of what we’re prepared to do.”