The United States should send arms to Ukraine to help in its “self-defense” against Russian aggression. It should hold Russia accountable for its illegal “occupation” of territory there, and push for international peacekeepers. Russian President Vladimir Putin bears the blame for this conflict in Europe, and he will be the “decision maker” on whether to end it too.
At least, that’s according to Ambassador Kurt Volker, the Trump administration’s special envoy charged with ending the war in Ukraine. If this sounds like a perfectly reasonable American policy toward Russia, that’s because it is, and more or less one that either party would pursue. But of course, there’s just one big problem with this: It almost certainly does not fully reflect what the president of the United States actually thinks.
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In a new interview for The Global Politico, his first extensive one with a U.S. publication since taking on the post this summer, Volker talked at length about just how troubled relations are with Russia these days despite Trump’s hoped-for reconciliation, how the several rounds of talks he’s held with a top Putin adviser have not yet made any progress, and what it’s like to be a special envoy for a secretary of state who’s vowed to get rid of them.
Overall, he said, prospects for peace are so dim he reckons it’s very likely that active fighting will continue a year from now in Ukraine, which has been embroiled in military conflict since 2014, when Russia forcibly annexed the Crimean Peninsula, the first such takeover since World War II in Europe, and fomented a separatist war in eastern Ukraine—leading to international condemnation and, ultimately, sanctions that Putin is desperate to lift.
“I’d say it’s at least 80 percent,” Volker told me. “There’s a chance that there won’t be, but the most likely scenario is that this continues,” he added grimly, noting that more than 10,000 people in eastern Ukraine have been killed since the fighting broke out.
To spend time with Volker is to confront the essential schizophrenia of the Trump administration’s Russia policy. His version is what just about any U.S. administration’s view of Russia and the Ukraine conflict would have been. And it’s pretty much consistent with that of others inside the Trump administration with whom I’ve spoken recently: deeply critical of Putin and certainly not swayed by him; concerned that little or no progress can be made on key issues and that the bottom in U.S.-Russia relations has not yet been reached after this past year’s election hacking, tit-for-tat spying accusations, diplomatic expulsions and consulate closure.
Volker said Trump himself is now on board with this version of his Russia policy, if only because Putin’s moves have been so confrontational. “Russia brings it on,” Volker said. “That’s what the president always says: We would like to get along with Russia. But what Russia is doing makes it really hard.”
But of course, this Russia policy is still not exactly Donald Trump’s Russia policy.
Reminders of that come just about every day. Just a few hours before my interview with Volker, in fact, Trump had made a point of calling Putin, and the official readout of their more than hour-long conversation portrayed it as a wide-ranging discussion of Syria, Ukraine, North Korea, ISIS, the Middle East and Central Asia. The decision to speak with Putin drew literal groans from some administration Russia hands, given that it came the day after Putin had been photographed physically embracing the Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during a meeting in Sochi, and Trump’s statement about the phone call made no mention of any criticism toward Putin’s backing of the Syrian regime or his recent decision to veto a U.N. investigation of the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons.
That did not seem accidental to anyone who has followed Trump’s dealings with the Russian leader. Despite the entreaties of his staff and their views – like Volker’s – that tend to be far more skeptical of the Kremlin strongman, Trump has never fully given up on his hopes of a friendly new era of Russian-American relations. On his recent trip to Asia, he even reignited the controversy over Putin’s 2016 intervention in the U.S. presidential election, suggesting he believed Putin’s denials – over the consistent findings of the U.S. intelligence community. (The White House later clarified, unconvincingly, that Trump hadn’t meant to suggest any such thing.)
All of which puts Kurt Volker right in the unlikely center of the most contentious foreign policy fight of the Trump presidency.
There’s no question that Volker, 52, is an unusual figure to have joined the Trump administration. His previous job was executive director of the institute started by Senator John McCain, perhaps Trump’s harshest foreign policy critic within his party and a Russia hawk of long standing who has been particularly pointed about Trump’s praise for Putin. And before that Volker served in a key role working with U.S. allies to counter Russian aggression as ambassador to NATO for President George W. Bush, whose foreign policy Trump spent much of the 2016 campaign bashing as expensive and inept.
Still, Volker pointedly did not sign the letter from a vast array of mainstream Republican national security types disavowing Trump during that campaign. A few of those who did sign it tell me they are glad he is on the case and running what appears to be his own version of a Ukraine policy they can live with; their only question is whether he, and the others who share his views within Trump’s administration, actually matter when it comes to making policy.
Volker also has the questionable distinction of being the only special envoy actually named to the job by Trump Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has come to office vowing to reorganize the department and eliminate dozens of separate special envoy positions like the one he just created for Volker. And in fact, Volker told me he has only taken on the post in a temporary, volunteer capacity, and that it was necessary because of the “particularly difficult transition” that left the Trump State Department without any political appointee in place to deal with the Russians on Ukraine.
When we spoke, Volker had just returned the previous week from a face-to-face meeting in Belgrade with a top Putin adviser, Vladislav Surkov. The session was their third, but Volker was blunt about what it accomplished: nothing. The talks, he said, were a “step back,” with Surkov reverting to Russia’s initial proposal in September to deploy U.N. peacekeepers in eastern Ukraine along the line currently separating Ukrainian government forces and the Russia-backed separatists. Surkov told reporters after the meeting that Volker had presented 29 separate paragraphs to the Russians and that Surkov had agreed with just three of them.
Either way, the meeting’s failure speaks not only to the difficulty of making peace in Ukraine but also to the troubled state of the current U.S.-Russian relationship.
Just before the latest Ukraine talks, in fact, a new irritant had arisen: the failed effort to get Trump and Putin together during Trump’s recent Asia trip. I had been told that the Russians were angry that Trump and Putin had not held a formal bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the recent summit meeting of world leaders in Asia and that the Trump White House had stumbled in both directions, first rejecting the idea of a meeting between the two leaders and then, when it was clear the Russians were unhappy about it, proposing at the last minute to add a Trump-Putin session only to have the peeved Russians reject it. In fact, the ill-timed Trump phone call with Putin right before my Volker interview had been in part a U.S. effort to smooth over those Russian concerns.
In the interview, Volker seemed to agree that could have been part of the reason for why Surkov had seemed so intransigent at their latest session. “Our third meeting, as you said, was a step back,” Volker told me. “They went back to their original proposal again. I don’t know what the next step after this is. It could be that that happened for completely other reasons having nothing to do with Ukraine, just where we are in our U.S.-Russian relationship. It could have had to do with the lack of a bilateral meeting between President Putin and President Trump.”
In general, I found Volker hardly puffing up the prospects of a grand peace settlement with Putin. He said he found Surkov a useful interlocutor, in that the Kremlin adviser clearly has the president’s ear and comes in his capacity as a “political operative” talking about a fundamentally political decision, not as some powerless functionary from the Russian Foreign Ministry. And he said there are “glimmers” of hope suggesting Putin might actually be ready to find a way out of the “impasse” in eastern Ukraine, given that fighting has more or less stalled and Putin faces tough U.S. and European sanctions because of the Ukraine incursion.
Volker insisted Putin could turn that around by cutting a deal now to end hostilities and bring in outside peacekeepers.
“By invading the country and taking part of the territory, they’ve produced a more nationalist, more Western-oriented, more unified Ukraine than ever existed before,” Volker argued. “That’s exactly the opposite of what they wanted to produce, so it gives them a reason to say, ‘Well, we’re not getting out of this what we wanted. It’s costing us a lot to do it, both in a very specific sense of a military operation and civilian administration,’ but it’s also costing in terms of sanctions, their reputation, their relationship with the European Union, their relationship with the United States. So they might have an interest in resolving this.”
Still, to hear Volker’s account is not exactly to listen to a conflict on the brink of resolution. Not only is Trump’s personal commitment to pushing Putin and forging peace in Ukraine highly suspect, but Putin himself would seem to have little reason to take such action now – especially with his own reelection looming in March of 2018, and the conflict with Ukraine inevitably something that needs to be portrayed as a Russian success.
Then there’s the equally complicated U.S. side of the equation.
Volker and others inside the administration are clearly having to sell their mission to Trump too and not just the Russians. Their case to Trump goes something like this: You say you want better relations with Moscow. Well, that’s not possible with the Russians still supporting a shooting war in Ukraine and subject to tough U.S. and European sanctions as a result. “If we are going to have any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations,” Volker said, “we don’t want to stay where we are. We’d like for this to be more constructive,” and for that to be the case “we’re going to have to see progress in Ukraine.”
Volker says Trump gets it. “I know, having heard from the president directly on this, he wants to do this. He wants to make peace; he wants to see this resolved; he wants to see Ukraine get its territory back. It’s crystal clear.”
The most pressing current issue that could well blow up Volker’s talks – and further erode Trump’s hopes of improved relations with Putin – are weapons sales to Ukraine. After months of internal debates, both the Pentagon and the State Department have reportedly recommended Trump approve a $47 million package of arms, including Javelin anti-tank missiles that Ukraine has heavily lobbied for. But Trump himself has not yet signed off and many Russia watchers believe he remains reluctant to do so; with the Russian presidential election looming and the fate of the Ukraine talks with Surkov still unclear, it’s possible the U.S. may not act on the recommendation anytime soon. “There isn’t any decision here,” Volker said.
Several sources have told me Volker has been a strong advocate for the arms sales, and he made clear in our interview that he supports the idea.
“There isn’t anything compelling that I can see as to why Ukraine should be a special case, why we wouldn’t do that, especially when they’re actively trying to defend their territory,” Volker said, before walking through “the arguments that people made in the past” and which “I don’t think hold a lot of water,” from the prospect that sending advanced U.S. arms to the Ukrainians could actually backfire and cause an escalation in the fighting to the idea that it would embolden Ukrainians to keep fighting and refuse to come to the negotiating table.
I asked one veteran Russia hand, a former senior State Department official, what to think about those arguments. Volker, the former official said, is on the right side. But Trump – as far as anyone can tell – is not.
And what does that do to Volker’s credibility with the Russians he’s supposed to be negotiating with?
You don’t have to be a veteran Kremlinologist to know the answer to that one.
Susan B. Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist. Her new podcast, The Global Politico, comes out Mondays. Subscribe here. Follow her on Twitter @sbg1.