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Volker-Surkov meeting: U.S. stance on Ukraine will not change

Russian president’s top aide Vladimir Surkov and U.S. Department of State Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker met in Minsk, on August 21. Following the meeting, Volker talked to Ukrainian Pryamiy TV (pro.global), Russian Dozhd TV (tvrain.ru), The Financial Times British magazine, Deutsche Welle German broadcaster. These interviews along with some side events are indicative of the U.S. stance in Ukraine crisis generally and the talks specifically. One could see how the U.S. representative for Ukraine manipulates media to promote his country’s stance on Ukraine, while the Russian side keeps silence.

Here is a brief description of how Volker sees the Ukraine crisis:

  • The unresolved conflict in the east of Ukraine impedes relations of Russia and U.S. The conflict needs to be resolved within the coming few months;
  • The situation in Donbass resembles war rather than a frozen conflict;
  • The conflict in Ukraine is growing tense and “things are likely to get even worse”;
  • There are Russian troops in Donbass, where there is military equipment. The presence of military equipment there creates a conflict;
  • “most of the ceasefire violations are from the Russian side,” i.e. “the Russian side” is a party to the conflict;
  • Russia is ready to “live with” sanctions and the status quo in Donbass. Frozen conflict is good for Russia, but it is not good for U.S.
  • Minsk process does not settle security problem. Neither has it ensured political resolution. Russia should observe the Minsk Agreements;
  • S. Government sees no difference between “the Russian invasion and the occupation of both Crimea and Donbas” (Volker told Dozhd TV).

Volker suggests withdrawal of Russian troops – he means military hardware too - from Donbass as the first step to resolve the conflict. One can just guess if Volker means all the armed forces of Lugansk and Donetsk people’s republics which he considers the “Russian side,” speaking of the “Russian troops.” In particular, during Defense Secretary James Mattis’ visit to Kiev, President Petro Poroshenko said the Russian troops in Donbass total some 3,000 people. Does Volker think that these troops should be withdrawn?

Volker’s stance is not his private opinion. In Kiev, Defense Secretary Mattis made similar statements on presence of the Russian troops in Donbass, on the U.S. single stance on Crimea and Donbass etc.

Actually, according to the U.S. stance ahead of the next round of talks on Ukraine, the Minsk Agreements are maintained, but just as common framework of the settlement – a kind of “magic formula.” Parallel to the Minsk process, U.S. is building an additional bilateral mechanism of settlement with its own logic of the conflict’s resolution. The Normandy format turns of secondary importance and implementation of the Minsk Agreements by Ukraine either pales into significance or is ignored.

U.S. is seeking a fundamental solution to the conflict in Donbass by the Russian leadership. Volker thinks it should be a “political solution” at the highest level. As to the talks with Surkov, Volker said: “We came to a consensus that the status quo will not bring anything good to anyone.”

Immediately after Volker made public his stance on the conflict, Kiev reminded that this autumn the Supreme Rada will discuss the Law On Reintegration of Donbass, which will make impossible for Ukraine to implement a series of provisions in the Minsk Agreements related to the rights of “separate regions,” elections, amnesty etc. The law will determine LDPR (“special regions”) as “occupied territories” and declare Russia “as aggressor country” without declaration of a state of war between Russia and Ukraine. In an interview with Dozhd TV in Vilnius on August 22, Volker avoided defining the conflict as “the Russian-Ukrainian war.” Actually, U.S. and Ukraine are ready to follow the logic of the so-called “proxy war”: there is “occupation” but there is no state of war.

One can learn about what U.S. cares most of all in the Minsk Agreements on Donbass from Volker’s statement: “Russia is finally ready to acknowledge that these territories are to be returned to Ukraine according to the Minsk agreements. They should become part of Ukraine and cease to be occupied. For this to happen, Russian troops are to be withdrawn and safety of the population guaranteed.” U.S. and its allies do not care for any other aspect of the Minsk Agreements. As for the domestic affairs of Ukraine, these are details that can be easily forgotten, the more so as the unimplementable provisions of the Minsk Agreements were forced upon Ukraine after military defeats. Meanwhile, the UN-sanctioned Minsk Agreements are still in force and deter Russia in the Ukraine conflict. This is a very important aspect that is appreciated by U.S., Germany and France. This is what makes them regularly urge implementation of the Minsk Agreements.

Moreover, new sanctions will be imposed on Russia for failing to implement the Minsk Agreements. To make this happen, as Volker claims, it is necessary to withdraw the troops from Donbass as a preliminary condition of security.

Talking to The Financial Times, Volker said “the Kremlin had hoped the Trump administration would take a more accommodating stance over Ukraine or put the issue on the backburner.” Instead, Volker said, “Washington was concerned that Ukraine had “slipped off the front pages” and the Trump administration — along with Germany and the Macron administration in Paris — was “raising the issue back up”.

To make Russia’s leadership go on a fundamental “political solution” on Ukraine, U.S. outlined quite a specific threat yet before Volker-Surkov meeting. A classic trick in diplomacy: to remove threat, they demand specific concessions from the partners in talks. In early August, 2017, the Wall Street Journal reported that Pentagon and Department of State suggested the White House a plan to supply Ukraine with anti-tank and surface-to-air missiles that will be defined as “defensive weapons.”

While traveling to Kiev, Defense Secretary Mattis promised to help Ukraine resist violations of its sovereignty by Russia and that Trump’s Administration weighed supply of “defensive weapon” to Ukrainian troops. Defense Minister of Ukraine Stepan Poltorak said Ukrainian troops would be ready to accept the U.S. “defensive weapons” if President Trump approved it. Poroshenko said the anti-tank weapons would be used to further deter Russian aggression. The supporters of the idea to supply weapons to Ukraine explain their stance with the actual failure of the Minsk Agreements of 2015.

Let’s recall 2015. After Debaltsevo and Minsk-2, some former high-ranking officials in U.S. urged Obama Administration to send defensive weapons and military equipment for $3 million to Ukraine in terms of military aid. President Obama decided not to render such “aid” allegedly not to make President Putin “raise stakes” in the conflict. German Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed provision of the U.S. weapons then.

In this light, Volker told FT: “[What] the Trump administration now is looking at [is] do we continue this rejection from the Obama administration, or do we change? There isn’t any new decision yet, but at very senior levels people are taking that very seriously,” Mr. Volker said. “Of course, it has to be a decision from the president.”

In practice, they were speaking about a not large deal with Ukraine for $50 million for acquisition of FGM-148 Javelin anti-tank missile systems. It is not aid, but acquisition. These are rather expensive weapons: about $100,000 per missile and $126,000 per command and launch unit.

In the political aspect, the situation is not favorable for Ukraine. After all, the U.S. supplies of weapons to client countries often mean that U.S. avoids extending its security guarantees over those countries. In an interview with Pryamiy Ukrainian TV, Volker confirmed that Ukraine is not ready to join NATO so far.

Besides, in an effort to cut budgetary expenditures, Trump cut military aid to allies and partners. As a result, the military aid to Ukraine for fiscal year 2017 was reduced to $175 million. Considering this amount, supply of electronic warfare devices to Ukraine is among Pentagon’s priorities. However, after recent efforts of the Congress and a regular upsurge of tensions in Donbass, Congress may vote for provision of aid to Ukraine and determine the necessary budget for it, and the “product range” to be supplied to Ukraine may undergo changes “in favor of weapons”.

Michael Kaufman, The New York Times, has already criticized the idea to supply “defensive weapons” to Ukraine. He called the idea untimely, since, as he said, Russia has not pursued offensive and has not tried to seize any substantial areas of Ukraine’s territory for over two years. No offensive, no weapons. Kaufman does not consider any “offensive” by Ukraine, since misbalance of the military capacities of Russia and Ukraine is evident for him.

Hopefully, President Trump will listen to Kaufman’s opinion. Besides, for instance, Fiona Hill, Special Assistant to the President Trump and Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on his National Security Council staff, while working at Brookings Institute as expert, did not think it expedient supplying U.S. weapons to Ukraine. Hopefully, she has not changed her mind. As for the key decision-maker, Trump, his hopes for improvement of relations are gradually being replaced with hopes to become a restraining factor for “American hawks” for Ukraine, Mattis and Volker.

In his interview with Ukrainian Pryamiy TV on August 26, Kurt Volker said Ukraine adopted the right decision by refusing from nuclear weapons in 1995. Volker is committed to the consistent policy of the previous few Administrations i.e. to prevent nuclear proliferation. However, on the other hand, one can assume that in the case of Ukraine the nuclear issue may be used as a measure of influence on Europe. If Ukraine refused from nuclear weapons earlier, it can be supplied with conventional arms as compensation now. Such logic can persuade those dubious about this in Europe.

Meantime, Germany is so far silent when it comes to U.S. arms supplies to Ukraine. Perhaps, the election campaign that is nearing completion in Germany gives Merkel a reason to ignore such acute issues raised by U.S. What will happen after the elections? Merkel too thinks of making Putin implement the Minsk Agreements the way she sees them.

In comments to Russian mass media, supplies of American anti-tank missiles to Ukraine were described as a measure that can in no way influence the military situation. This is cynicism, since these “Javenils” along with other weapons will be killing our compatriots in Donbass, even if these weapons are supplied in small quantities. These supplies cannot be called insignificant from either political or humanitarian points of view.

All this has political subtext, first and foremost. Obama said at the time that arms supplies to Ukraine might make Putin “raise stakes.” Either Obama was wrong or Washington no longer fears that Putin may “raise stakes.” All this makes one think that Russia and U.S. had some informal arrangements not to increase tensions. Figuratively speaking, Novorossiya was exchanged for a limited involvement of U.S. into the military conflict.

U.S. can supply nonlethal warfare to Kiev, but it cannot supply lethal ones. If U.S. launches arms supplies to Ukraine, it will mean that it crosses the line and actually tries to intensify the military conflict with Russia instead of defusing it. Besides, it appears that U.S. does not anticipate Russia to take any serious retaliatory actions in Ukraine for the fear of new sanctions.

The West has noticed the recent statement by Fyodor Lukyanov, Chairman of the Presidium of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, saying Russia’s leadership has “no interest in any escalation” and Moscow is in “confusion” now and has taken a wait-and-see attitude after Trump’s Administration fell short of expectations for improvement of relations. This “confusion” in Moscow prompts U.S. to try to press the Russian president to change his stance on Donbass.

This brings us to a number of conclusions. Specifically, Russia is failing to freeze the conflict in Donbass. The position war is underway there. Russia is trying to freeze the conflict so openly that this spurs its rivals to deter it. Kiev with its ATO provides quite good opportunities for it.

Russia has failed to stabilize the political situation in Ukraine (to ensure at least neutrality, federalization and settle the Crimea issue in its favor) through Minsk Agreements. By agreeing on the Minsk Agreements, Russia has lost any chance to influence the domestic situation in Ukraine. Supported by Germany and U.S., Ukraine, in turn, refuses to implement its part of the Minsk Agreements. Besides, these documents have been transformed substantially and are now being used as a method to deter and press Russia.

Russia failed to include the Ukraine conflict into the context of general relations with U.S. and its allies in remote crisis points. It cherished vain hopes that Ukraine may pale into insignificance for U.S., though under Trump, U.S. “reanimated” at least several conflicts in the world, and Ukraine is one of them. U.S. seeks to settle at once several issues, which inspires us with hopes that it will fail. Therefore, the threats voiced by Volker are likely to be ignored by Russia’s leadership.

The U.S. stance on Ukraine seems unchangeable even with Trump coming to power. The U.S. lose nothing from the current level of the conflict in Ukraine. Exactly the opposite, it gains from continuous destabilization of the buffer zone between EU and Russia. Absence of any active counteraction just encourages U.S. to seek new opportunities to attack from all possible sides: international policy, economy, finance and military affairs. As a result, the situation in Ukraine does not seem to improve for Russia any time soon.

By Dmitry Semushin

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