Remarks by Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker at a Press Conference in Kyiv

July 27, 2019

Chargé d’Affaires a.i. William Taylor: Everybody knows Kurt Volker, Ambassador Volker, I’m going to say very little except that it’s great to have him here, we welcome him every time we can get him into this country. He’s very well-known and so needs no further introduction. Kurt, welcome.

Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker: Well, thank you very much, Bill. And Ambassador Taylor is a tremendous asset for the United States, a great supporter of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship, a great supporter of Ukraine, we could not be any happier than having Bill here representing us right now. I’d like to start with a few opening comments, and then we’ll go into question and answer.

First, I want to say that we congratulate the people of Ukraine on the successful parliamentary election. It was a free and fair election, and truly reflected the will of the Ukrainian people. I think that, plus the presidential election, which was also free and fair, gives the leadership of Ukraine the legitimacy that they need to move forward with reform and also gives the people a right to expect what they have voted for from their government.

This is just the way democracy is supposed to work, and we couldn’t all be happier for you, and the United States stands fully behind Ukraine. You have our very strong support. And what we see from the election is that the Ukrainian people clearly voted for change. They voted for peace. They voted for reform. They voted for a Ukraine that is part of Europe, part of NATO, part of the West.

This is the choice of the Ukrainian people, but again, you have the full support of the United States in these aspirations. And as you know, President Trump congratulated President Zelenskyy on his election. They spoke again on Thursday of this week. We are working on a visit for President Zelenskyy to the White House. I made this visit here today to connect with the President and his team and also to go visit the conflict area in the Donbas.

As you know I made a visit to Stanytsia Luhanska yesterday to the contact line. I think it’s very important for the people in eastern Ukraine to know that they are not forgotten, but instead we view it as a very high priority that there be peace and the ability of these Ukrainian citizens to be reconnected with the rest of the country and to get back to normal lives.

And there’s humanitarian tragedy that these people are living through, it’s unacceptable. We are committed to doing everything possible to support efforts to bring peace to eastern Ukraine. That is very clearly what President Zelenskyy wants as well. He has articulated clearly his commitment to peace. He has taken initiatives in disengagement of forces at Stanytsia Luhanska. He is reaching out to the people in the occupied part of Ukraine to make clear that he views them as Ukrainian citizens who deserve support and assistance.

And I’d say that this already is having a positive impact. At Stanytsia Luhanska, the Russian-led forces have also withdrawn from some of the checkpoints, they have a little more to do, but they have made a move. There is now a focus on trying to repair the bridge where people have died in the past to make this a much safer and more easily usable boundary crossing. Construction engineers have already had an opportunity to visit, and I understand construction crews may have an opportunity on Monday. And if Russia reciprocates, if Russia responds positively, takes steps as well toward peace, I’m optimistic that we can build on this progress. I hope that this would lead to more disengagement areas in other places and more boundary crossings to make it easier for residents of the Donbas.

Another very important step that Russia could take is to release the Ukrainian sailors who have been imprisoned in Russia since November. The Ukrainian ships and Ukrainian sailors were attacked and seized illegally, and they continue to be held illegally, and should be returned without any conditions.

In addition to that, I hope there can be an early prisoner exchange between Russia and Ukraine. This is a conflict between the two states and there’s no reason for these individuals to be separated from their families and their countries any longer.

And finally, President Zelenskyy has articulated a very clear commitment to reforms that [inaudible] in Ukraine. There are so many areas to look at, but one of the most important is rule of law and judiciary, and creating a climate that is attractive to bring investments, foreign investment, to Ukraine. This country has everything anyone could want. It has a well-educated, well-trained population. It has natural resources. It has great agriculture. It has a great location. It has the spirit of dynamism. All it needs is the rule of law in order to attract investment and create dynamic growth in the economy of Ukraine. And in this as well, Ukraine can count on the United States as partner. And I think that’s enough from me, I’d love to hear your questions and try to address them as best I can.

Question from Journalist: …You mentioned Ukrainian sailors detained in Russia and an early prisoner exchange. Can you say, is there any progress in talks regarding these two issues? Maybe you could even name a date for possible release or exchange?

Special Representative Volker: First on the sailors, unfortunately we’ve heard nothing from Russia to indicate they are considering their release. Russia has created a court process and is pointing to that instead of addressing the issue straight on. In terms of the prisoner exchange, there are two ideas, one of them is an exchange of prisoners held in Russia who are Ukrainian citizens, and Russian citizens held in Ukraine. That has not gone very far, but it’s an idea on the table. The other idea is an exchange of prisoners in the Minsk context, where you have prisoners who have been taken as part of the conflict being exchanged. Here there has been an increase in work to try to achieve such an exchange. People have developed their lists of prisoners that could be exchanged, but comparing lists — they will be continuing to work on that in the Minsk meetings.

Question from Journalist: You mentioned that there are some kind of negotiations about the future visit of Zelenskyy to the White House. Many say, what are the conditions for Ukrainian to fulfill or to do, so that such a visit will take place before the first of September. Because we know that they may meet for 5-10 minutes in Warsaw, or vice versa, there is some question that maybe President Trump will have some short visit before the first of September. Is this possible , what can or should be done?

Special Representative Volker: Thank you. First off, there are no conditions. The invitation stands. President Trump reiterated that invitation to President Zelenskyy on Thursday. And we look forward to welcoming President Zelenskyy in the United States. Now of course we want to develop an agenda so that this meeting is as productive as possible. And Ambassador Taylor and others of us have been in close contact with President Zelenskyy’s team to develop that kind of agenda. And then the other issue is synchronizing the two presidents’ schedules. We don’t know today exactly what date’s going to work for both of them, but Ambassador Taylor’s working on that, and I’m sure we’ll have news soon.

Question from Journalist: Ambassador, you visited the conflict area yesterday, you saw how people live there, what concrete steps can the United States take to help them in their everyday lives?

Special Representative Volker: I think, many things. One of the things that I wanted to do by going there yesterday, I wanted to be sure that we brought attention to exactly what you said. This war has gone on for over five years. And sometimes people lose focus, their attention drifts elsewhere. But we can’t forget that people are living through this every day. Another is that in the diplomatic efforts, we certainly support the Minsk process, we support the Normandy meetings that France and Germany are organizing, we support President Zelenskyy’s initiatives to reinvigorate some of the steps under Minsk to bring peace, and we are prepared diplomatically to engage in all of these formats and also bilaterally with Russia in order to support efforts to bring peace. And on the direct humanitarian assistance, we are the largest contributor to the UN relief in the Donbas, we are the largest contributor to the OSCE’s Monitoring Mission, and we work bilaterally through U.S. channels as well, through AID, to provide other ways of connecting with people there and supporting their engagement with the rest of Ukraine. But let’s be clear: the only reason people in eastern Ukraine are suffering is because of Russia’s invasion and occupation of that territory. If they were not being occupied, the people of the occupied Donbas would be be part of this dynamic development that’s happening in the rest of Ukraine right now. So we hope, that through all of these mechanisms I’ve mentioned, that we can get Russia to decide that this conflict is no longer worth it. And indeed that Russia could actually take a step to improve the lives of the people living in the Donbas.

Question from Journalist: After successful elections here in Ukraine, many people are waiting for a real sign of support, strategic partnership, especially for the visit of the American President. It’s only one hour flight from Warsaw to Kyiv, so what are the possibilities that this might happen, and what must be done in Ukraine so that President Trump might decide so?

Special Representative Volker: As you know, the travel of the American president is usually planned out well in advance; it is a very big undertaking. And so, it would be a very big lift to do that. I don’t want to exclude anything, but what I can say, is that there’s a standing invitation for President Zelenskyy to come to Washington, and we’re actively working on the dates for that to occur. And whether it is now or at some point in the future, of course we hope that our president has an opportunity to visit Ukraine as well.

Question from Journalist: I would like to ask you a specific question regarding the recent phone call between our presidents. And especially, [was the issue raised of] possible arms sales, any little defensive weapons sales, to Ukraine? And should we expect any progress by the end of this year in this regards, that Ukraine could be getting some new weapons from the United States for the Ukrainian army?

Special Representative Volker: According to the readouts that I’ve received of the phone call between the two presidents, that issue was not discussed. But as you know, back in 2017, the Trump administration lifted the arms embargo on Ukraine that the previous administration had put in place. So, there is no restriction on the provision of lethal defensive assistance to Ukraine anymore. And as a result, we work together with Ukraine as we do with any other close friend of the United States. We have appropriations through Congress for our military financing. We have through that provided defensive equipment such as Javelin missiles or anti-sniper systems. We’ve also transferred Coast Guard vessels. We’re also open to sales of military equipment to Ukraine, if Ukraine wishes to buy. Earlier this year, Ukraine amended its legislation to enable it to buy foreign military equipment. And the next phase under that is direct discussions between the Ukrainian government and the U.S. government, between the Pentagon and the Defense Ministry, on what needs there are, and what systems the U.S. has that would be suitable for addressing those needs, and then Ukraine has an opportunity to purchase those. So what I want to say is this is now on a normal trajectory, and things will come out of this, as they come out, based on the natural course of discussions about what Ukraine needs, what the U.S. can supply, what the finances are, and so forth.

Question from Journalist: You met with some leaders of political parties here in Ukraine. And you discussed, as it was said in the media, some reforms. So what reforms did you discuss and what reforms in Ukraine [will] the U.S. push for?

Special Representative Volker: So first off, I very much appreciated the chance to meet with the leaders of all of the various political parties that have now been elected to the Rada. And it’s great to get a variety of perspectives on things, and that really reflects well on democracy in Ukraine. And there were a couple of things that were consistent across all of these meetings, and that are also priorities for the new government. One of them is judicial reform and strengthening the rule of law. Another is addressing the influence that oligarchs in Ukraine have over various aspects of society – so much control, and so few people – and how to change that including the media. Land reform is another issue that came up, and ways in which that can be addressed. And there was some talk also about electoral system and constitutional reforms, and there was some talk about Ukraine’s orientation toward Europe, and so these are things that everyone is talking about. And of course the U.S. supports all these various efforts. It is for the government to take the lead in proposing legislation, the parliament to address this, and then, of course, execution is always critical. And just to underline, though, these are reforms and these are issues, for Ukrainians to decide themselves, the U.S. is not going to be directing what kind of reforms take place, but we support these efforts because it will make Ukraine a stronger, a more successful, a more prosperous democracy.

Question from Journalist: You talked about Ukraine’s leadership role in bringing peace to the Donbas, you mentioned the reconstruction of the bridge in Stanytsia Luhanska, what next steps could Ukraine take to fulfill its leadership role?

Special Representative Volker: Well, thank you very much. You are right that Ukraine has taken new initiatives already. And I think Russia also needs to take steps to reciprocate and to build peace as well. And then what some of these things could produce, we hope, are additional areas of disengagement of forces. The opening of additional boundary crossings between the occupied area and the rest of Ukraine. For instance, at Zolotoye, which Ukraine has prepared for, but Russia has not wanted to do yet. And I think if we – also I should add, extending the ceasefire, making it more lasting and deeper, more permanent, including by separating forces. This can also allow the opportunity at additional boundary crossings in the safety of them to provide government service centers right there, so that the citizens have much easier access to government services – pensions, education, so forth. Prisoner exchange, I mentioned as well – also important. Agreements to disengage forces to allow for the protection and repair of critical infrastructure, like water and electricity. So it’s important to start somewhere, and as is the case, this is starting at Stanytsia Luhanska. But the goal would be to then build on that and create momentum for more. And ultimately to get to a successful negotiation of the end to the conflict for good.

Thank you all very, very much for making the time and allowing me to speak with you today. Slava Ukraini!