Kurt Volker: "Trump doesn’t know himself what he will do with Ukraine's war"

Friday, 23 February 2024 — , European Pravda

Ambassador Kurt Volker was one of the top US diplomats overseeing Ukraine during Donald Trump's first term in office. A former US Ambassador to NATO and the State Department's Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations (2017-2019), he became popular among Ukrainians for his direct and undiplomatic remarks about Russian aggression and Putin's intentions.

Western officials didn't always support his firm stance back then, but history has proved Volker right.

Kurt Volker’s involvement with Ukraine has continued in the four and a half years since his resignation. And now, as Trump's re-election starts to look ever more realistic, European Pravda met with him to understand what lies ahead for Ukraine in the new era of Donald Trump.

"I do believe the aid will be unblocked in March"

Kurt, I am happy to welcome you to Kyiv. Let me ask a difficult question. Is Ukraine winning the war?

It depends on how you define winning.

My definition of winning is: Ukraine is and will be forever a sovereign, independent European democracy. I have no doubt about that. So I think Ukraine has already won. Putin has created a new Ukraine. And I think that this is going to last.

If you define victory as retaking all of the territory, the 1991 borders, we're not there. And it's going to be hard, it's going to take time, you’re going to need help from the United States, and from NATO, and Europe. So we can't say how this really looks now or even next year.

According to surveys, Ukrainians define victory as retaking all our territories. I can see that you are not so certain that this will happen.

It's going to be hard, is what I said. It's going to be hard.

I think Ukraine gets its territory back when the Russians decide they’ve had enough of Vladimir Putin.

Why not with Putin?

Because he is going to fight.

He is going to kill as many people as he needs to. Look what he just did in Avdiivka. He threw thousands and thousands of Russians to their deaths because he just wanted to say: we took Avdiivka.

And that's his mentality. That's what he's willing to do. He will kill as many Russians as he needs to in order to keep the war going and in order to stay in power – up until the moment that the Russians decide they’ve had enough.

We have a feeling in Ukraine that the West is getting tired of the war.

I don't agree with that.

But there is not the unconditional support that we had in 2022.

You had an emotional level of support – immediate and very passionate, very emotional – in 2022. Now you have something that looks more like structural and long-term and sustained support.

I was just at the Munich Security Conference. The support for Ukraine there is extraordinary among the European states, among the senators and the Congressmen that were there.

I was at Davos in January. The same thing on the economic side. You have people who are very passionate about helping Ukraine still.

Meanwhile, we see that even military support by the US has been halted and the plan A is that budgetary support may not be extended.

There is a significant majority in the Republican Party and in the Democratic Party, maybe 80% of both, that strongly support Ukraine and they want to see this aid passed. The reason it has not happened to date has nothing to do with Ukraine.

It's all about the US southern border, where today we have anywhere from 5,000 to 10,000 people coming into our country illegally every day. And the public has had enough, the political parties want to do something about it, but then they disagree fundamentally over what to do. That has blocked all of the other legislation in Congress.

I do believe this will get unblocked, and I think it'll probably happen in the coming weeks, probably in March, and we'll see that assistance come through.

There are two parts of US assistance, $45 billion for military, $16 billion for humanitarian and economic. One of the proposals that's out there for how to get this to the floor would take the humanitarian part out.

The theory is that American military aid is unique and vital for Ukraine; the financial aid is something that others can do, particularly the European Union, and they have already approved 50 billion euros for Ukraine just a few weeks ago. So that is the thought behind that.

And also our Congressmen are always judging the politics of their votes.

The reason that the border matters is because they want to be able to tell voters: "Yes, we gave $60 billion to help Ukraine, but we also took care of our own security." If they can't say that – "We didn't do anything about our own security, but we gave 60 billion to Ukraine" – that's a harder sell politically.

That's why these are connected in that way.

There is still a very good chance that that economic aid will be approved as well. It's only one of multiple ways to go forward by stripping that out.

But you understand, I think, the way the politics get played in the US.

"I don’t think Trump knows that himself"

Let's not hide the elephant in the room. The name of this elephant is Donald Trump. We see that he says things that are contrary to what you say.

Trump has been very careful most of the time not to say anything specific.

He is against the war. He had what I would describe as an unnatural warmth toward Vladimir Putin when he was president.

And yet he also was the one who overturned the arms embargo on Ukraine and provided the first lethal defensive assistance, the anti-tank systems, the Javelins. He closed down the Russian consulate in San Francisco. He was very much opposed to Nord Stream. And he increased sanctions against Russia.

He had this pattern of saying one thing, [being] warm toward Putin, and also doing other things that were completely pushing back on Russia.

So I think we don't really know what he would do if he was elected president again.

Donald Trump is keen to negotiate with Putin. For Ukraine, that is unacceptable, because nothing can be decided without Ukraine.

Absolutely.

I would assume Trump would also say, look, we're providing the money, we're providing the arms, we have a say too.

But you're absolutely right: you can't cut a deal about Ukraine over the heads of Ukrainians. That would be both morally wrong and it would never work.

Trump operates outside the bounds of traditional political logic and may attempt to negotiate what he considers peace.

Let's not make assumptions about what he thinks or what he would do, because we don't know.

And honestly, I don't think he does either. I think he makes it up as he goes along.

What he does do is he tries to leverage position. And so he says, we have the money, we have a position of strength. He has said publicly that he would tell Putin one message, he'd tell Zelenskyy another message, it would force them to end the war. That's what he says.

But what does that mean when Russia is abducting children, raping women, killing soldiers, mutilating, still trying to advance and take more Ukrainian territory?

You can't leave it where it is.

This has to be stopped and it has to be pushed back. I think that's the reality that that kind of attitude is going to confront if he actually gets elected and becomes president again.

It's a very different situation than when he was president the last time, because there was no full-scale invasion. There was a process, even if it was deeply, fatally flawed, this Minsk process, but it existed.

And he didn't have much experience with Putin.

And now we've seen so many things are different.

Putin has come out clearly and without any hiding anymore as genocidal, as an imperialist, as laying a claim to the territory of other countries, saying that Russia has a right to seize it, of denying that Russia's neighboring peoples have equal rights, like Ukrainians or Belarusians or Georgians or others. He has launched a terrible war, a horrific war, which is completely unacceptable by any norms, by any standards.

So that's the Putin we see today. It wasn’t as visible in 2017.

And also we've seen Ukraine unify as a country, forge a much greater sense of national identity, national strength. We've seen Ukraine fight and take very hard decisions about its future.

We've seen Ukraine make a very clear decision that it wants to be part of the European Union. It wants to be part of NATO. It sees itself as part of that same European family as other European nations.

Ukraine has actually developed now probably the strongest and most experienced military in Europe.

So it is a very different situation today than what was the case when Trump was president.

And I would have to assume that if he is elected president, all of those things will have to be taken into account.

"We have made many mistakes, and finally, we need to turn that around"

You believe that Putin could attack even NATO countries, don't you? What could lead to that?

Yes. I believe what can lead to that is the weakness of the West.

If we do not demonstrate to Putin that we are absolutely resolved to help Ukraine defend itself and recover its territory, to defend all of our allies – as people say, not a single inch – we have to show that we are committed and strong and capable and willing in order to deter him.

And every time we hesitate, every time we say: "Oh, we need a negotiation," every time we say, "Well, you can have this weapon system, but you can't have that weapon system", every time we say, "Oh, Ukraine's not ready for NATO," we're signaling to Putin that we're weak and we're not determined.

You’ve done a lot of that over the last two years.

Yes, we have. Yes, we have.

And that's the concern. And I think we need to turn that around.

We need to be much more direct, much more committed, in order to create deterrence. That's what works. Weakness actually leads to war.

I would not rule out that under the next president, even if it’s Donald Trump, this change is possible.

Yes, me too. Thank you for saying that. I agree with that.

I think President Biden would do that if he's reelected.

I think that he is cautious about Russian escalation – in my view, too cautious. But I think if he's reelected, this is the only way to rebuild peace in Europe. And I think that will be the legacy that he would want to leave.

And likewise, I think President Trump, if he were elected, would probably do the same thing. He always talks about how important it is for him to end the war. Well, you don't end it through weakness.

And then the other candidate who we should not forget is going to continue running, – she's going to continue getting delegates, and she will go to the convention – is Nikki Haley. And it's still possible, something can happen, that she ends up being the nominee. And she is the most clear-eyed and determined of the candidates now for support for Ukraine.

Is there a chance that Ukraine could become a NATO ally before the war ends?

I think so. I don't think it's likely.

The US administration and the German government have made clear they don't want to move that quickly.

But I believe it can and should happen.

Germany has fundamentally changed in its attitude towards Ukraine and its attitude toward Russia. Scholtz, like Biden, is trying to manage Putin, manage escalation. But the attitudes of Germany have changed.

Also, in the United States, I think the attitudes of people who deal with policy and national security have changed. There is a much greater commitment to bringing Ukraine into NATO now than there ever was before.

It's a matter of getting the conditions right.

The fear that people have – the Biden administration, the German government – is that admitting Ukraine to NATO now would draw NATO directly into the war against Russia immediately. It would create a wider war with attacks on NATO countries. It could lead to the use of nuclear weapons. That's their concern.

I think that concern is important to take into account. But I don't think it is dispositive, I think we can manage this.

If we don't manage that concern, if we just get frozen because of that fear, then we signal to Putin: We're afraid. We are deterred. And Putin will continue to fight and do whatever he wants.

How can this fear be overcome?

We need to sit down with Ukraine in the NATO-Ukraine Council right away and start talking about what Article 5 means.

Article 5 of the NATO Treaty is not specific about what you do to help an ally who's been attacked. It just says that you do something. You must respond collectively.

And we are doing a lot already.

We shouldn't minimize what we're doing. We're doing a lot providing arms, training, equipment, organizational support, logistical support, communications, intelligence, you name it.

We are committed to continuing to do that. That's meaningful.

There's more we can do. We should, in my view, be very focused on air defense for Ukraine. We are providing a lot of equipment. We are not participating directly in air defense.

We could do more to help Ukraine directly with air defense.

We are just beginning now to do things with Ukraine about demining in the Black Sea. We should be more involved and more aggressive about maritime demining in order to facilitate the opening of ports for normal shipping, including container shipping.

Because this is the lifeline for Ukraine's economy.

Shipping has to go back and forth. We have not done any freedom of navigation operations in the Black Sea for a long time, and we should. The Black Sea is international waters.

We are doing this off the coast of Yemen in order to protect freedom of navigation from the Houthi rebels.

We should be doing the same thing in the Black Sea against the Russian threats of piracy.

"Time is on Ukraine’s side"

To end this interview, I understand that it’s impossible to make a clear prediction, but how long could the war last?

There's a famous baseball coach in the United States named Yogi Berra, who said, "It's very hard to make predictions, especially about the future."

And that's exactly it.

No one can predict timing. And I do believe that we see so many things in Russia that indicate fragility inside Russia.

The fact that they won't release Navalny's body, the fact that they killed him to begin with – these are signs of weakness.

Prigozhin's rebellion – that’s a sign of disarray and weakness.

Putin killing tens of thousands of Russian soldiers in order to get Avdiivka so that he could claim this as a victory in his effort to show that he’s a great leader for his re-election – these are all signs of weakness.

The fact that they need ammunition from North Korea and ammunition from Iran, the drones from Iran, because they can't keep up on their own with what they're trying to do – that's a sign of weakness.

The fact they're in a budget deficit, which they were not before. They've lost their energy markets in Europe – that's a big deal.

So there’s a lot more fragility under the surface than Putin wants to show.

And I think the more we help Ukraine, the more Ukraine strengthens itself, its economy starts to grow again, Russia is not able to advance, Ukraine inflicts heavy casualties on Russian forces – this is going to create pressures in society.

So is time on Ukraine’s side?

Yes. Yes, as long as we keep helping you, and the European Union keeps helping you, time is on Ukraine's side.

 

Interview by Sergiy Sydorenko,

Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk

European Pravda

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