On 7 July, the U.S. State Department chose Kurt Volker, former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now executive director of the Washington-based McCain Institute, as special envoy for Ukraine. Volker’s mission
is to restart efforts to end the war, which has already claimed at least 10,000 lives, in coordination with Normandy Four nations Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia. “We’re disappointed by the lack of progress under the Minsk agreement,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson noted during a 9 July press conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko. “We do call on Russia to honor its commitments that were made under the Minsk accords and to exercise influence over the separatists in the region, whom they do hold complete control over and we call on them, again, to immediately call on their proxies to cease the violence that is ongoing in east Ukraine.”
Volker, who has served five U.S. administrations and in recent years has been closely linked to Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), has long criticized
the Minsk framework and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In fact, since the first days of Russian aggression against Ukraine after the early 2014 Euromaidan revolution, Volker has publicly urged a tough response that includes the immediate deployment of NATO ground troops to the alliance’s eastern boundary. Volker favored selling Ukraine modern military equipment and offering the EU loan guarantees to advise and train Ukrainian armed forces, share real-time intelligence data, and let Ukraine establish a permanent liaison body at NATO’s Brussels headquarters. He supports even tougher Western sanctions on Russia—including banning Putin and his family from traveling to the U.S. and EU member states— and kicking Russian banks and businesses off the SWIFT financial transaction network.
Ukrainian officials greeted Volker’s appointment enthusiastically. The decision is an “important & timely move in the interests of ending Russian aggression and restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including Crimea,” Poroshenko tweeted on 7 July. Speaking to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on 10 July, Kostyantyn Yeliseyev, the deputy head of Ukraine’s presidential administration, claimed that Ukraine—with French and German support—had lobbied for Volker’s appointment.
Ironically, the Kremlin-sponsored Sputnik news service reported
a Tillerson statement that Volker had also been appointed at the request of Russian President Vladimir Putin. More typical, however, were the comments of Russian officials and pundits who asserted that Volker’s views on Ukraine made it unlikely the sides would reach a settlement—at least on Russian terms. Pro-Kremlin observer Mikhail Pogrebinsky lamented
that, based on a consideration of Volker's background, “a less suitable candidate for the search for compromise would be hard to find.” Other remarks echoed the current Kremlin preoccupation with determining whether Trump, still seen in some quarters as relatively benign toward Russia, or the “russophobic” Deep State – including more hardline U.S. officials who are seen as hemming Trump in, will gain the upper hand. Volker will have to choose, said one observer, between Trump or McCain.
U.S. political observer Viktor Olevich told Vzglyad that Volker’s appointment to take Victoria Nuland’s place as special envoy for Ukraine suggests that the Trump administration does not plan to “seriously change its approach to the Ukraine issue.” Perhaps not, but the signs are that Trump is more willing to get more directly involved in the peace process than did Obama in the recent past.
Meanwhile, the Kremlin also seems ready to begin talks anew, though no evidence suggests it will budge from its long-term objective of keeping Ukraine in its sphere of influence and out of Western political, security and economic institutions. Speaking with the German TV channel ARD ahead of the G20 summit, Putin—in an apparent effort to position the Kremlin for any negotiations—again raised
old, unsubstantiated Kremlin falsehoods regarding the consequences of a military withdrawal from the Donbas. “Frankly speaking,” he said, “we are very concerned about any possible ethnic cleansing and Ukraine ending up as a neo-Nazi state.” There is little evidence that will happen. In stark contrast to Putin’s assertions, a recent United Nations report lambasted
the human rights situation in Crimea, which Russia annexed in March 2014. Although the same report blamed both sides for human rights abuses in Donbas, it found that the war was fueled by the “continuous inflow of foreign fighters and supply of ammunition and heavy weaponry from the Russian Federation into parts of Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.”