ROME – In the nearly four years that have elapsed since Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula and invaded eastern Ukraine, some 10,000 people have been killed and more than 1.5 million displaced in the conflict that ensued, with new deaths recorded daily.
With humanitarian conditions worsening in Ukraine’s Donbass area and the risk of disease increasing due to a lack of supplies that would normally be available, the list of problems and risks “goes on and on,” meaning negotiations to reach peace are even more crucial, Kurt Volker, U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, told Crux in an interview.
Though there has been much talk of a U.N. peace-keeping mission to the conflict area that would help stabilize the region, now it is impossible, he said, saying Russia is holding up the process by refusing to agree to the mission, which is “a shame, because it’s the local residents who are really suffering.”
Volker also spoke of Russian resistance to implementing the 2014-2015 Minsk Agreements aimed at a ceasefire and a de-militarization of eastern Ukraine, saying they are “unfairly” faulting Ukraine for the delays, and said the United States intends to hold sanctions against Russia in place until they cooperate.
Speaking of his visit to Italy and the Holy See last week, where he held meetings with various officials to discuss the Ukraine conflict, Volker said major points of convergence between the U.S. government and the Vatican are the humanitarian situation and the treatment of prisoners.
Religious freedom is also a key shared concern, he said, particularly in light of the decision earlier this month by the Orthodoxy’s Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church independence from the Russian Orthodox Church – a decision Volker believes was prompted by the current conflict with Russia.
Below are excerpts of Crux’s conversation with Volker.
This conflict has fallen off the radar for most people. They’ve forgotten there is a war going on in Europe. How serious would you say this conflict is not only for Europe, but also beyond, given that there is so much international intervention?
It has fallen off the radar, and that’s one of the things I need to try to do is to keep it on the radar. If you think about it, this war in Europe has killed more people in Europe since the Balkan wars in the ’90s, over 10,000 people have been killed. It has produced more displaced persons than any war in Europe since World War II, over a million and a half people have been displaced.
There has been talk of a peace-keeping mission there. How realistic is that mission at this point, and what support would it offer?
In terms of practicality, I think it’s very realistic … What is required here is really for Russia to agree, because the Ukrainians are happy with this. Western nations are happy. Other U.N. security members, the U.S., France the UK, everyone is happy with this, but Russia needs to agree for it to happen. So far Russia is not willing to do that, and it’s a shame.
So that’s the only thing stopping the mission at this point?
Yes. The Russians don’t like the proposal for a couple of reasons. Mostly they want to see the people’s republics they set up there remain in place, and they want the Ukrainians and the international community to negotiate with them, which would have the effect of making this conflict permanent.
So Russia is resisting, but have they been open to other negotiations? How many steps, if any, have they taken to implement the Minsk Agreements?
Almost none. The Russians deny that they are there, which is inaccurate. They have regular military forces in eastern Ukraine, they have total command and control of the military forces that are there. Those that are not regular military Russian forces are contract soldiers hired by a Russian firm and paid for by Russia, so it’s as if the U.S. had hired Blackwater to conduct a military operation somewhere else.
You’ve previously spoken about the importance of maintaining sanctions against Russia. Would you say these have been effective so far?
Yes, I would. It has contributed to a situation where we are deterring Russia from further aggression and intervention … I think we’re at a stage now where a combination of the sanctions, the political resolve that the transatlantic community has shown, the improvement of Ukraine’s defense capabilities, means that the costs to Russia going forward will be much higher, so I think it has helped blunt Russia’s aggression.
Do you think this is a possibility as things are, or is more pressure potentially needed?
It’s always possible, why not, everything is always possible. I think the most compelling reason is Russia’s invasion and seizure of territory and killing of Ukrainians has really alienated the Ukrainian public and driven Ukraine to becoming more unified, with a stronger national identity, more pro-western, more Russia-sceptic than ever before. This really isn’t what Russia wanted out of this.
How much of a role does religious debate play in the conflict?
It doesn’t. Religion does not play a role in the conflict. This is Russia’s effort to influence the orientation of Ukraine from being a European democracy to being part of a wider-Russian civilization. What has happened, however, is that with this invasion and killing of Ukrainians, occupation of territory, it has alienated Ukrainians from Russia, and I think it has given impetus to this demand from Ukrainians that they want recognition of their own church. That would not have happened five years ago, but it is happening today because of the circumstance of Russia’s invasion.
What has engagement with the Holy See been like? Pope Francis has been very committed to Ukraine, and the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church is a good friend of his from Buenos Aires, so what kind of interaction has there been between the U.S. government and the Vatican?
I met the equivalent of the foreign minister, Archbishop [Paul Richard] Gallagher, and I think the first thing is that the Vatican places a very high priority on humanitarian issues. They care about the people there. Religious freedom is also a shared interest. They believe religious freedom is terribly important, including that even if this process of recognition of the Ukrainian Orthodox goes through, that doesn’t mean that Ukraine should be establishing a state church to the exclusion of others, not by any means, and there should be a respect for all religious communities in Ukraine.
Would you say the Vatican has been supportive of the U.S. position?
No, I wouldn’t put it that way. I think they have quite a unique perspective on things being a religious entity and a state entity at the same time, and I think they are much more cautious about expressing a view on some of these matters than we would be. We’ll be a little more outspoken and they’ll be a little more reserved, but that said, I think there is a lot of shared understanding and shared concern on some of these aspects.
There’s an issue in the occupied areas of Ukraine of the treatment of detainees. It’s not pretty. I’ve met with some of them who have come back who have been tortured. I’ve met with families of some who have been tortured or who have disappeared or been killed. And the Red Cross does not have regular access to these people either, so facilitating the return of detainees and facilitating access for the Red Cross would be a shared interest as well.
That’s been a problem as well, correct? The border of the conflict zone has been pretty tight, not much can get in or out…
It’s not the border or the boundary, it’s the willingness of the local authorities there under Russian control to allow access. There are 40,000 border crossings a month, but it is restricted in what it can do. Restricted to people there, residents shopping and coming back, big goods, access to the international community, access to detainees, those kinds of things are restricted.
Is there still a lack of basic supplies?
It’s under pressure, is what I would say. There is no healthy local economy anymore, so you have to go outside to shop, and come back. There is a lot of black-market activity. That does have the tendency to drive prices up and have a little unreliability in access. For the medical system, there are still hospitals, there are still doctors, it does still function, but again, there are pressures on that.
You mentioned an increased resolve and increased nationalism among Ukrainians due to the conflict. Do you think this has also strengthened their cause for entry into the E.U.?
Let’s look at it from both ends of the spectrum. From the Ukrainian end of the spectrum, they have done more on economic reform and fighting corruption and strengthening the economy in the last three to four years, than in the preceding twenty years. So they’ve done a lot. It is still not up to E.U. standards in many, many ways, but they are moving that way and it’s important to them. I think they can get there, I think it will take a lot more work, and years and time, but that’s the trajectory they want to be on.