PARIS — The new U.S. special envoy for efforts to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, Kurt Volker, says Washington is considering sending Kyiv weapons to help government forces defend themselves against Russia-backed separatists.
Providing lethal defensive weapons would allow Kyiv to “defend itself if Russia were to take further steps against Ukrainian territory,” Volker told Current Time TV in an interview in Paris on July 25.
“Russia says it won’t do that and isn’t doing that, so then there should be no risk to anybody, if that’s the case,” said Volker, who was appointed on July 7 and visited towns near the front lines in eastern Ukraine on July 23.
President Donald Trump’s administration “is now reviewing where the Obama administration left it, considering whether we should provide defensive arms to Ukraine or not,” he said. “So that’s the state of play.”
Volker said he did not think arming Ukraine with lethal defensive weapons would “provoke Russia to do more than they are already doing, and it also isn’t going to change any kind of balance that way.”
“I hear these arguments that it’s somehow provocative to Russia or that it’s going to embolden Ukraine to attack. These are just flat out wrong,” Volker told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with Voice of America (VOA).
“First off, Russia is already in Ukraine, they are already heavily armed,” he said. “There are more Russian tanks in there than [tanks] in Western Europe combined. It is a large, large military presence.”
Ukrainian leaders have urged the United States to send weapons and have asked, in particular, for portable Javelin antitank missiles, which soldiers in the conflict say are needed to fend of attacks from tanks and self-propelled artillery.
After a Moscow-friendly president was pushed from power in February 2014 by massive pro-European protests, Russia seized control of Ukraine’s Crimea region and fomented separatism in eastern Ukraine.
The ensuing war between Russia-backed forces and the government has killed more than 10,000 people since Aril 2014 and persisted despite a pact known as Minsk II, a February 2015 agreement on a cease-fire and steps to resolve the conflict.
Volker said that ending the fighting will require agreement by all sides on two major principles — the “territorial integrity of Ukraine, security of all the people” — and a change in Russia’s approach. He suggested the United States is stepping up its efforts.
“What we need to do is bring this to a higher strategic level — getting more U.S. involvement and engagement, which is partly why I was named; getting Germany and France, the partners in the Normandy process…and, frankly, getting Russia to make a different strategic choice — that it wants to solve this conflict too.”
“If the issue here is the safety and security of all of the people — Russian speakers, Ukrainian speakers — this conflict is not providing that; this conflict is killing that,” he said. “And so we’ve got to do a better job of stopping the conflict, getting the forces out, and then providing a basis of governance going forward.”
Progress toward implementation of Minsk II has been slow, and fighting has flared up in recent weeks. Ukraine’s Defense Ministry said on July 20 that eight Ukrainian soldiers were killed and 10 were wounded amid intense shelling in the previous 24 hours, one of the highest tolls in months.
“We see as many as 1,500 or more cease-fire violations every night,” Volker, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO, told Current Time in the interview in Paris. “So this is a very hot conflict that’s going on and it has a terrible cost.”
Sanctions imposed by the United States and European Union have not prompted Russia to abandon its support for the separatists or fulfil its commitments under Minsk II.
Volker said that is “not a reason to reverse course — it’s a reason to think about what else we can do to get to a point where we can actually solve this.”
He also said that Washington and its allies needed to increase their information campaign to counter what he described as Russian “propaganda.”
“We need to be…making clear that the Ukrainian people are suffering, making clear that people in the Donbas are suffering, they are cut off from services and supplies from the rest of Ukraine, from Kyiv, they are being blocked by the armed groups that are there led by Russia,” Volker said.