Freshly appointed U.S. Special Envoy on Ukraine settlement Kurt Volker wasted no time and took on a visit to Ukraine as part of the delegation led by State Secretary Rex Tillerson, to familiarize himself with the situation on the ground. Obviously the challenges he will be facing differ from those which his predecessor Victoria Nuland had to deal with.
Six months after the inauguration of U.S. President Donald J. Trump, the United States resumed the separate communications channel on Donbas. First reports of Kurt Volker’s appointment came July 7, on the first day of the G20 summit in Hamburg, the same day when President Trump and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin met for their first time on the summit’s sidelines. Actually, the latter event totally eclipsed the news on the appointment within the State Department. Although the Trump-Putin meeting should in no way be considered much more important of the news.
"As you’ve acknowledged recently appointed Ambassador Kurt Volker as the special representative on Ukraine, and I appreciate the accommodation you have made that will allow him to spend the next couple of days here becoming much more deeply familiar with the perspective of yourself and other members of your government and the Ukrainian people regarding this very challenging issue [the Donbas conflict],” U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said at a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv.
The decision to deploy Mr Volker in the early days of his appointment is no surprise given Washington’s high expectations that the new special representative will be aware as soon as possible of the processes taking place within the framework of the Normandy meetings, and will also engage in a dialogue with Russian presidential aide Vladislav Surkov, as Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland did in the Obama administration. However, there is reason to believe that, unlike Nuland, Volker will give out no cookies.
No more "cookies"
Kurt Volker is a professional and experienced diplomat, former U.S. Permanent Representative to NATO and former head of McCain Institute in Arizona. Experts say Volker is someone who is well versed in U.S. foreign and national security policy, in particular, on the European and Russian lines. According to the political consultant, president of the National Strategies Foundation, Taras Berezovets, several facts from Volker's CV are in favor of this opinion. "He is a professional diplomat who has worked as U.S. Ambassador to NATO, and this is one of the key diplomatic posts, the second most influential, actually, after the U.S. Envoy to the UN Security Council. Recently, he worked as an executive director at John McCain Institute ... Tillerson took a man from the wing of the "hawks" of the Republican Party," he said.
Political scientist, director of the Institute of Global Strategies Vadym Karasyov shares this opinion. According to the expert, this is a rather good sign that an experienced diplomat with an acclaimed background and knowledge of NATO, military-political, not just diplomatic, issues, has been appointed to such a responsible post.
The political scientist believes that, in contrast to Nuland, who would often be deployed to tackle specific challenges and issues, Volker’s job will mean a constant consultations process. In other words, the intensity of the contacts will be much higher. And this, in turn, can contribute to a more intensive diplomatic process and, as a result, progress in the implementation of Minsk Agreements, as well as the resolution of the Donbas conflict in general.
"Volker's appointment is in the interests of Ukraine. He can get the Minsk wheels off the slip as well as the issue of a diplomatic resolve in Donbas," he says.
Besides, Karasyov suggests Volker is someone who will be able to compensate for the underestimation of Russia's role in the Donbas conflict by the U.S. top leadership.
Small battles of a big war
At the same time, experts note that consultations for the conflict settlement would be impossible without a dialogue with the Russian side. Taras Berezovets recalls that on behalf of Russia the negotiator was and remains the presidential aide, Vladislav Surkov. And Volker, obviously, will have to communicate with him personally. "This will be a very important, yet complicated, dialogue, it is impossible to work with Surkov as he is a world-class scam," the political consultant said.
Of course, the very fact of the appointment of the U.S. Special Representative on Ukraine will resume the boost of relations, meaning a more active U.S. engagement in the Donbas conflict settlement. "Moscow is not negotiable, it does not fulfill its obligations, and the arrival of such a soberly thinking diplomat is a signal that real professionals are coming to the State Department," Berezovets is convinced.
"When it comes to resolving the situation in the east of Ukraine, he [Volker] expressed some criticism regarding Minsk agreements from the point of view of Ukraine's interests. That’s in the sense that in some aspects they fail to take into account the position of Kyiv," says Volodymyr Fesenko, a Ukrainian political analyst and head of Penta Center for Applied Political Studies.
"It is important for us that in the negotiation process Volker not give any bonuses and advantages to the Russians, and not get carried away with his game with Surkov, as was the case with Nuland," he said.
On the other hand, this is unlikely to mean any significant progress in the implementation of Minsk Agreements. "Everything is stalled by Russia's unwillingness to fulfill its obligations. And the appointment of any U.S. representative will change nothing in this process until Putin decides to withdraw from Donbas or reach some compromise," Berezovets said.
Information against provocations
Fesenko also notes that Volcker is a negotiator, he is supposed to accept proposals, while leaving important foreign policy decisions to be made by U.S. Secretary of State and the country’s President.
Indeed, rejoicing in the appointment of a "hawk" for Donbas, it is worth considering that Trump uses the Ukraine issue as a kind of balance in his relations with Russia. At the moment, this is actually working in favor of Kyiv. But Trump wants to reach deals with the Russian Federation. Therefore, tough pro-Ukrainian rhetoric can be compensated by agreements with the Russians on other issues.
According to Fesenko, Trump and Tillerson choose priorities slightly different from resolving the Ukrainian-Russian conflict: "The shuttle mission is being restored when the U.S. special representative visits both Kyiv and Moscow. In parallel lines with the Normandy Four negotiations and the Minsk format, Volker will try to speed up the settlement process, seeking options for compromise... But there is no need to get delusional about Washington’s possible direct involvement in the negotiating process on Donbas, that is, the U.S. joining the Normandy format. Trump doesn’t want that."
On the other hand, according to political analyst Taras Chornovil, Volker's subjective anti-Russian stance suggests that Trump's team will be very widely informed about every provocation by the Kremlin. And it is unlikely that the "hawks" will miss the opportunity to take advantage of this information.