Washington is ready to expand arms supplies to Ukraine in order to build up the country’s naval and air defence forces in the face of continuing Russian support for eastern separatists, according to the US special envoy for Ukraine.
In an interview with the Guardian, Kurt Volker said there was still a substantial gap between the US and Russia over how a United Nations peacekeeping force could be deployed to end the four-year war, and predicted that Vladimir Putin would wait for presidential and parliamentary elections in Ukraine next year before reconsidering his negotiating position.
However, Volker argued that time was not on Putin’s side. He insisted pro-western, anti-Russian sentiment was growing in Ukraine with every passing month. And he made clear that the Trump administration was “absolutely” prepared to go further in supplying lethal weaponry to Ukrainian forces than the anti-tank missiles it delivered in April.
“They are losing soldiers every week defending their own country,” said Volker, a former US ambassador to Nato. “And so in that context it’s natural for Ukraine to build up its military, engage in self-defense, and it’s natural to seek assistance and is natural that other countries should help them. And of course they need lethal assistance because they’re being shot at.”
He added: “We can have a conversation with Ukraine like we would with any other country about what do they need. I think that there’s going to be some discussion about naval capability because as you know their navy was basically taken by Russia. And so they need to rebuild a navy and they have very limited air capability as well. I think we’ll have to look at air defence.”
In May, Congress approved $250m in military assistance to Ukraine in 2019, including lethal weaponry. Congress had voted for military support on a similar scale in the past but was blocked by the Obama administration, fearful of triggering a matching escalation from Moscow. The Trump administration lifted that restraint in December 2017 and then approved the shipment of Javelin missiles.
“The Javelins are mainly symbolic and it’s not clear if they would ever be used,” said Aric Toler, a researcher at the Atlantic Council. “Support for the Ukrainian navy and air defence would be a big deal. That would be far more significant.”
Russia continues to arm separatists in the Donbass region. released in August by monitors from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) showed convoys of lorries crossing the border on a dirt road at night.
US officials believe there are about 2,000 Russian troops in eastern Ukraine, with most of the fighting being done by local separatists. The frontlines are frozen and the war has settled into a low-intensity conflict taking lives each week to add to the estimated 10,500 already killed.
Under an agreement reached in Minsk more than three years ago, Russia was supposed to withdraw its troops and Ukraine was to assign special status to Russian-majority districts in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, has made some moves toward decentralisation but the most critical legislation has been stalled in parliament and is unlikely to see progress until next year’s elections. Russia shows no signs of withdrawing.
Volker appeared to make progress in January with his Russian counterpart, Vladislav Surkov, a Putin aide. At talks in Dubai, the two discussed a compromise proposal on how a UN peacekeeping force might function. The suggestion, put forward by the US, Germany and France, is that peacekeepers initially deploy to the frontline, where Moscow wants them, and then over time move through the Donbass and establish a presence on the border with Russia, which is where Kiev and its western supporters would like the UN blue helmets to be.
In January, Surkov described the plan as “a balanced approach”. But there has been no official Russian response. Volker said he outlined the plan in more detail on paper but the Kremlin appeared less willing to compromise than it did in January. It is insisting that the peacekeepers’ mission be restricted to protecting OSCE monitors and that it not be deployed until the rebel entities, the Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics”, are recognised and given special status. Those conditions are unacceptable to Kiev and Washington.
“Russia wants Ukraine to take these steps before relinquishing control of the territory,” Volker said. “And that’s just not feasible. You can’t have elections in a condition where territory is occupied.”
The Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, said last week that Volker and Surkov would meet “soon”. Volker, however, was sceptical.
“It’s clear that we have some significant differences in our perspective,” he said. “I think we’ll do a few more rounds of talking before deciding whether it’s going to be productive to do another big meeting.”
Volker was pessimistic that there would be any substantial progress until after Ukrainian elections next year.
“There have been some indications that Russia is probably not going to do much until after those elections,” he said.
The envoy denied that his efforts to maintain consistent western pressure on Russia have been undermined by Donald Trump’s far softer rhetoric, in which the president has repeatedly expressed his desire to lift sanctions and reportedly told fellow G7 leaders Crimea was Russian because everybody there speaks Russian.
“What the president is doing, it seems, is trying to keep open a channel of dialogue with Putin so that if there is a chance of resolving the issues we have a vehicle for doing so,” Volker said. “I think it is actually smart and important.”
The envoy added that he was confident Trump maintained the US position on Ukraine at his summit with Putin in Helsinki in July. He argued that time was against Putin in Ukraine as the war turns its people against Moscow.
“It has alienated the Ukrainian population, especially the younger generation, [it has] produced a more western-oriented country than before, with a stronger national identity,” Volker said.
The Ukrainian presidential elections remain a wild card, with no clear frontrunner and an electorate disillusioned by corruption and human rights abuses.
“The problem is the Ukrainian government is not doing what they are being urged to do by all their western partners which is really to deal with their own corruption domestically and build the rule of law,” said Angela Stent, a former national intelligence officer on Russia and Eurasia, now a Georgetown University professor.
“As long as the system itself remains unreformed, there is room for the Russians to make inroads … That is the other piece of it that only the Ukrainians can do.”