"Trump doesn't want Ukraine to become Afghanistan. It will be a catastrophe for him." An interview with Kurt Volker

Thursday, 20 June 2024 — , European Pravda

Kurt Volker is well-known to the Ukrainian audience. An American diplomat and former US Ambassador to NATO, he served as the US Special Representative for Ukraine negotiations from 2017 to 2019. He was known for his candid, undiplomatic statements about Russia's actions and its aggression in Crimea and Donbas.

He also has a keen understanding of the sentiments within the American elite, including the Republicans, who could potentially return to power in Washington following the 2024 presidential elections.

We spoke with him about what we can expect from a potential Donald Trump presidency. Is Trump's opinion about Ukraine changing, and if so, why? And what do President Biden's recent strange statements about Ukraine and NATO mean?

You can find out more in the interview we recorded at last week’s Black Sea Security Forum forum in Odesa.


"I don't see a way that you have a permanent peace in Europe unless Ukraine is a part of NATO"

Serhiy Sydorenko, Editor, European Pravda: You heard President Biden’s statement that Ukraine's victory does not include joining NATO, and that he does not see Ukraine becoming a member. How did you take this?

Kurt Volker: He said that, but none of us knows what he was thinking exactly.

But I would guess he was thinking of the Washington summit in July. I think he's thinking no NATO invitation now.

But it has been US policy for 16 years. It was the US policy at the Vilnius summit [NATO’s summit in July 2023]. It will be repeated again at the Washington summit that Ukraine will become a member of NATO – but not now.

When there's agreement of all the allies, when it meets the conditions, etc. There is a commitment that you will be a member of NATO.

And as you know as well, we just did a bilateral security arrangement, signed a bilateral security agreement with Ukraine.

Signed by Joe Biden!

Signed by Joe Biden, which includes a lot of positive references to eventual NATO membership.

People in Ukraine have started to be sceptical about the country’s prospects of joining NATO. If the US is doubting whether Ukraine will join, surely it’s not going to be possible.  How could it happen that Biden would make this statement?

I can't answer that. I mean it must have been in his mind and he was probably thinking about the Washington Summit.

The reason I bring that up is because almost all of the Allies – leave aside Germany, the US and Hungary – all of the other Allies support an invitation for Ukraine to join NATO at the Washington Summit. To get an invitation and to start accession talks.

This is what was in the Rasmussen-Yermak working group paper, which I was a part of, recommending this approach for NATO.

But the US is not in favour of that right now. The Biden administration is not, nor is Germany. And of course, Hungary's a special case – we don't have to go into that.

But he was probably thinking about the pressure that they’re under now.

But in my view (and again, this is just me – I'm a private citizen, I'm not representing the U.S. government), I don't see a way that you can have a permanent peace in Europe, let alone Ukraine, but a permanent peace in Europe unless Ukraine is a part of NATO.

We have to have clear lines. We have to have an absence of grey zones where Putin is tempted to start a war.

We have to bring Ukraine into NATO as part of the strategy for restoring peace in Europe.

That is US policy.

Despite what the president may have said, he was probably thinking something else.

"No one knows for sure what Trump will do"

Do you expect that the next US president will have a different name?

It's hard to say. It's five months away. The polls are very close.

If you were to take the election today, my guess is that Donald Trump would win. He is leading in the polls and particularly in the swing states.

But it’s a long time from now, so we don't know.

I wouldn't make any assumptions about what the policy will be.

President Biden, if he’s in his second term, he might decide "OK, now is the time".

President Trump might say, "OK, if we're going to end the war, part of ending the war is bringing Ukraine into NATO, so we won't have to go through this again".

And I think you can sell NATO membership as burden-sharing as well.

Right now, the US is providing half or more of the security assistance for Ukraine, including the most critical elements of security assistance. I think Trump would like to see European allies picking up more of that load. And that's something you can do through NATO.

What should we expect from a potential Trump presidency?

The secret to dealing with a potential Trump presidency is – don't expect anything.

Do your own homework, be prepared, be proactive, but don't make any assumptions and don't leap to any conclusions. Because I don't think anyone knows for sure what he would do. Even Trump himself. The same goes for his team.

He will have to pick a vice presidential candidate. The [Republican party] convention is now about one month away, so he will be picking a vice presidential candidate.

But I wouldn't make any assumptions about who's going to be Secretary of State, who's going to be National Security Advisor, who's going to be Secretary of Defence.

We simply don't know.        

Do you think that Trump is progressing in his understanding of Ukraine?

In a couple ways, yes.

One of the key things that Trump would have learned in the last few years is that he was right not to pull out of Afghanistan because it was an absolute disaster.

And he wanted to.

He really wanted to get out of Afghanistan. He kept telling people to get us out of there, but in the end, he never did because he was told: "it’s going to be a catastrophe".

And it was.

So now, he would see that Ukraine failing, losing to Russia, would be just like Afghanistan for him. He doesn't want to be in that position.

In Trump's mind, he also looks at the way the Biden administration has handled things and says: "this wouldn't have happened if I was in charge".

But he views this as a weakness.

He wants to project strength.

But the most telling thing is that when we needed to get passage of the supplemental assistance for Ukraine through Congress, Trump gave very strong political cover to the Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, to get it done.

He had him visiting Mar-a-Lago.

They did a press conference together. He tweeted. He spoke out publicly a few days later.

And then, when Marjorie Taylor Greene, a very far-right member of Congress, filed a motion to remove Speaker Johnson from his position, it was Trump who came out and said: "Give it a rest, Marjorie. Don't do this."

He clearly was protecting Johnson and Johnson's ability to get the aid through.

My guess is that he knew that if he didn't do that, he would be inheriting a disaster at the time he becomes president, if he gets elected.

And he didn't want that.

Could this not be the only reason? Is it possible that he has learned more about Ukraine?

Yeah, maybe. I don't know. I would not go that far.

The thing I would say about Donald Trump is that he knows his own mind. He makes his own decisions and they can go anywhere.

"It's incredible what Putin has been able to achieve in Orban’s case"

You say we should not try to predict anything about Donald Trump, but let's try to predict one thing: Will the US stop being a NATO ally?

No, I don't think so.

It's important to look at what happened again earlier this year.

He was at a campaign rally.

He was bragging about how we got European NATO allies to spend more on defence. So he threatened them that if they had not spent enough on defence, then he'd tell Putin to do whatever the hell he wanted with them.  

Well, obviously there was a big reaction against that statement in Europe. Our allies didn't like hearing that. It was the main topic at the Munich Security Conference.

A few weeks later, he orchestrates a conversation with Nigel Farage [the populist leader of the UK’s new political party, Reform UK, and a Trump ally] on stage where they flip it around.

And Nigel Farage asks him: "so if a country had spent 2% of GDP on defense and was treating the U.S. fairly, would you come to that country's defence?" And he said: "of course, 100%".

So he was taking what he said as a negative before and flipping it around to become a positive, but still with the focus on getting NATO countries to spend more. And that is his main issue with NATO: he feels that the US has been taken advantage of, that we've spent too much, and others have spent too little.

He is trying to shift that balance.

There’s another person who is very difficult to predict: Vladimir Putin. 

I don't think Putin is that hard to figure out.

Putin wants to rebuild the Russian empire and deny the right of people around Russia to have their own countries. He believes that everybody should be under Russia.

It's a very Hitlerian worldview.

He is very clear about it. He has written about it. He talks about it and he acts on it. I'm not surprised by anything that Putin is doing.

What he does, though, he is tactically very clever.

He tries to sow divisions within Europe, sow divisions within NATO, undermine democracies, push narratives that are false and convince people that maybe he is reasonable and if you just don't provoke him and maybe negotiate something, there is a solution.

Is he successful at that?

Look at Viktor Orban – a person and a country occupied by the Soviet Union that in 1956 had for 10 days or so recaptured its freedom, and the Soviets come in and squash it.

Orban in 1989 was the one who called for the Soviet Union to move its troops out.

And now he is espousing a pro-Russian view.

It's incredible what Putin has been able to achieve.

Isn’t it not only about Putin’s success, but also about Orban’s own tactics? 

Some things work for Orban.

Being the defender of Hungarian national identity and traditional values, that works very well for understandable reasons. We see a lot of our own politicians defending traditional values and identities in our own countries.

That works.

But the Hungarian people are not pro-Russian, and him adopting a pro-Russian view is very confusing to people.

Similarly, the Hungarian people are very wary of China. They see it as a far-away country, racially different, culturally different, linguistically different, and potentially undermining Hungary's economy. People are very wary of China as well.

But Putin has said Orban is China's best friend in Europe.

I don't think these things play well.

I think the nationalism, the identity, the traditional values – that works. Even playing against Brussels and playing against Washington, that works.

"If Putin could escalate, he would already have done so"

Putin demands that for peace negotiations to start, the western alliance must make clear that Ukraine will not join NATO and Ukraine must withdraw its troops from his so-called Novorossiya. Is there an understanding that Ukraine will never do this?

Of course. But it is to try to sow divisions where some people might think, "well, that at least is an opening, he's talking about peace, we should explore this, we should have dialogue".

You can just hear in western European capitals the wheels turning. "Oh, maybe we should find a way to talk to Putin. Maybe we can end this war."

He does that to create divisions within Europe, between Europe and the United States, between Ukraine and its European and American allies.

He's trying to drive these wedges.

But NATO allies would not agree to his terms…

No! No chance. No chance anyone will agree to that.

He is just trying to create confusion and create division.

In late 2021 and early 2022, Putin was threatening action if NATO didn’t make clear that Ukraine would not join, and when NATO didn’t give him this, he launched the full-scale invasion. Is it possible that he is now preparing for a new escalation?

If he could escalate, he would already have done so.

He has a lot of problems militarily – with personnel, equipment, ammunition, leadership, command and control, morale, also problems with morale on the domestic population because they don't really want their kids to go fight in Ukraine.

Some do.

Some do, but the trend is the opposite direction.

They didn't empty out their prisons because they had plenty of other recruits. They did it because they needed more.

I think that he's got more problems than they publicly admit. And I think that he can't really escalate conventionally very much right now.

Only with the nukes.

Yeah. But nuclear is different.

There's always the possibility of using a tactical nuclear weapon. The problem there is that his own military will tell him it is not going to achieve anything, and it will bring a retaliation against Russia. So better not to do it.

And he can't afford to give an order that his own military doesn't follow.

I don't think he can really escalate.

I think this is more about the diplomatic effort of a peace conference and how to disrupt that and how to continue to create doubts in Europe and between Europe and the US about how to handle things.

"Winning breeds winning"

How can Ukraine achieve victory? Do you see it?

Oh yes, of course.

But let's start with the US and NATO allies. We have to conclude that our objective is for Ukraine to win and therefore we will develop a strategy with you for how to do this.

That is not happening right now.

We are making incremental decisions about how to help Ukraine, help you survive, give you this ammunition, give you that weapon system. Say you can use it in this area around Kharkiv but maybe not anywhere else in Russia.

It's very incremental, and it is minimising rather than maximising.

It's widely held in Ukraine that the US tactic is not to allow Ukraine to lose, but also to control things so that it can never win…

It's fear!

It's not so much controlling that Ukraine never wins.

I think people would be happy and relieved if Ukraine won. But there's fear, as you pointed out, fear of escalation, other countries, other borders, fear of nuclear weapons, fear of Russia falling apart as a country, fear of loose nukes inside Russia, if that happens.

So it’s just all of these apprehensions that "oh, we have to be careful".

And that policy guided by fear is the opposite of policy guided by purpose. The purpose should be: Ukraine has to defeat Putin and Putinism in Ukraine. Defeat those forces.

And whatever it takes to do that, including firing inside Russia and military targets, tightening sanctions against the Russian economy, providing Ukraine the weapons that it needs, lifting all restrictions, helping with freedom of navigation, strengthening the Black Sea security, maybe providing direct support for air defence so that Ukraine can move its own air defences forward where they're needed, helping Ukraine, especially with its energy sector, as we head into this winter so that there is no risk of power outages – those are all things we could and should be doing.

I don't see any will – and I don’t see how to get that will – in the West, especially in the US.

Yeah. I think we just have to keep fighting for it. You are right, I don't see it at the moment, but it doesn't mean we can't get there.

[French President] Macron, for example, he has moved from his position a year-and-a-half ago to today. He's moved substantially in this direction.

The UK has always been in that position. Poland, Lithuania, other Baltic states, Czechia too…

We don't know about Trump. As we said earlier, anything is possible. And with Biden in the second term, it’s possible.

One thing that we should pay attention to is that winning breeds winning.

So once things start to go well, they get better. It creates a bit of a momentum of positive belief, willingness to do more that in turn creates better conditions, which makes things go better.

We have to get onto that virtuous cycle.

Right now, we're not there. We are in the stagnation cycle. 

Sergiy Sydorenko, Editor

Video by Volodymyr Oliinyk

European Pravda

Odesa, Black Sea Security Forum

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