Interview by Susan Glasser, Politico, 27.11.2017
Susan Glasser: You’ve just returned in recent days from your latest round of talks with one of Vladimir Putin’s top lieutenants, Vladislav Surkov. Tell us about that, Kurt.
Kurt Volker: Well, Vladislav Surkov is in the presidential administration of Russia. He has been given the responsibility of dealing with some of these frozen conflicts: Abkhazia, South Ossetia. He’s viewed as the person who is in charge of their intervention in Ukraine, both Crimea and in the Donbass.
I’ve been asked by Secretary Tillerson on behalf of the State Department, but also on behalf of the U.S. government, to get the U.S. more engaged in negotiations to try to resolve this conflict in the Donbass in eastern Ukraine. This is the one the so-called Minsk Agreements are meant to resolve.
And, it has been my third meeting with Surkov. I actually think that the Russians are exploring the idea: Is it worth ending this conflict, creating peace, getting out, and what would that look like? I don’t think they’re committed to it yet; I don’t think they’ve made a decision one way or the other—but I think they’re exploring it.
And what I find is Surkov himself is a very smart, very professional, very capable person. He has maybe a cynical sense of humor, but he knows what he’s doing, and so I think it’s a good interlocutor to have in that sense, because if we’re going to get something done, it’s going to be coming from Surkov and his relationship with President Putin.
Glasser: So you feel like he has the juice to make something happen? He speaks for Putin?
Volker: I think only President Putin can decide. But he has the ability to communicate with President Putin, and so that’s very important. And he’s not cut from the Foreign Ministry or the Defense Ministry cloth; he’s a political operative. He ran election campaigns. He’s dealt with some of these regional conflicts and leaders from Chechnya as well, also South Ossetia, Abkhazia, as I’ve said. So he’s got the communication channel. But I do believe it’s Putin as the decision-maker.
Glasser: Right. And so, a lot of people say—including inside the administration who I’ve spoken with in recent weeks—say that our relationship with Russia, not only is very bad right now, but it hasn’t even possibly bottomed out. So, to be talking with them about Ukraine is quite an interesting juxtaposition right now. How bad does it seem to you to be?
Volker: Well, it’s interesting. There is certainly a lot of pushback going on against things that Russia’s doing, whether it’s throwing diplomats out of our embassy in Moscow or some of the actions in Syria or others, INF treaty.
Ukraine is an interesting one where even though we have very different views of Ukraine and perspectives, we may yet be able to agree on some common actions, and so it could actually be a foundation for doing something positive. I think in Russia’s case, they want to have a Ukraine that is pro-Russian, Russia-friendly, a government they can work with.
And yet, 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.
Glasser: Right. The backlash effect. Ironically, a lot of people have said that it’s the one thing that has brought Ukrainians more together, is Putin’s intervention.
Volker: Exactly. And 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.
And of course, we would like to see it resolved so that Ukraine’s territory can be restored.
Glasser: Well, okay. So, how much do you feel like Surkov and the other Russians are willing to acknowledge any of those factors? How explicit with you are they?
Volker: It’s interesting, because there’s a difference between what they would say and what you intuit that they know. They’re not going to say, “Oh, yeah, we invaded, and oh yeah, we’re doing that,” but you know that they know and they know that you know, and so—
Glasser: I know that you know that he knows.
Volker: So, you’re talking about what we can accomplish.
Glasser: So, on that, how much are you able to bring up both Crimea and the Donbass? Are you just talking about one?
Volker: Well, that’s a very good question, because the difference between the two is almost nonexistent. This is a Russian invasion, a Russian occupation of territory. In the case of Crimea, they have also claimed to annex it, and in either case we don’t recognize it. It’s not legitimate.
The Minsk Agreements were designed to deal only with the conflict in the east, and that is the one also where there is active fighting going on. So, on average, a Ukrainian soldier is killed about every three days now, inside Ukrainian territory, defending the country. So, it’s a very hot conflict there.
That is not the case with Crimea today. Now, we don’t accept Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea and its claimed annexation, but if we can make progress on the other one—on the Donbass—we should do it.
Glasser: So, you’re not bringing up Crimea when you—
Volker: I have brought up Crimea. I have brought up Crimea, and the Russians say, “We’re not going to talk about Crimea.” It’s just important to put down the marker that we disagree on this.
Glasser: I see. So, the real discussion is whether there is a genuine opportunity right now for peacekeepers following up on this Russian initiative—whatever you want to call it—in September?
Volker: Yeah. The issue here is, if Russia wants to get out—which is not clear—there is a lack of trust between the Russians and the Ukrainians. The Russians don’t believe the Ukrainians will follow through with implementing the Minsk Agreements—a lot of political steps. The Ukrainians don’t feel the Russians will ever let go of their hold on the security in the area.
So, a peacekeeping force would be meant to bridge the gap. It would be a way to establish security, create the conditions where you could hold local elections, create the conditions where the Ukrainians could follow through on other pieces of Minsk implementation, ultimately resulting in then turning the territory back to Ukraine and restoring Ukrainian sovereignty, which would be the fulfillment of the Minsk Agreements.
But the problem is that right now that’s been stuck for three years, and they’re not getting anywhere, so the idea of a peacekeeping force is to create the security, the time and the space for that to happen.
Glasser: Some people say that diplomats are eternal optimists, otherwise, they wouldn’t do it. The report out of your last meeting—I believe your third with Surkov—said that from the Russian side, that you offered a list of 29—I believe—proposed principles behind this, and that the Russians said they rejected all but three of those.
I’m assuming that those three were like the spelling of Ukraine.
Volker: Yeah, well, I didn’t even count. The situation was like this. Russia in September proposed a draft U.N. Security Council resolution, and their proposal called for a U.N. protection force to protect the monitors that are there from the OSCE. They were supposed to monitor the ceasefire, and monitor the withdrawal of heavy weapons.
Now, of course, everybody knows there isn’t a ceasefire that’s holding; it’s violated every night, sometimes multiple incidents and lots and lots of artillery and explosions and mortars and so forth. And the heavy weapons have not been fully withdrawn.
So, it’s not actually working. But the idea is that if you—the Russian idea—is that if you protected the monitors they could go further into the territory, be more safe, not have as many roadblocks. I find that kind of a specious argument because if the Russians wanted these monitors to have access throughout the area, they could. It’s something else going on.
So, what we did is, we said, “Look. We’re intrigued by the idea that Russia went to the United Nations. It is worth pursuing the idea of a U.N. mission there, but it needs to be real peacekeeping force. It needs to be a kind of force that would control security throughout the contested area to actually have the cantonment of heavy weapons and to actually control the Ukrainian side of the Ukraine-Russia border, so you don’t have this free flow of people and equipment back and forth. If you did that, it would actually be a very useful step and would allow you to get to Minsk implementation.”
Now, I believe that the Russians proposed what they did in order to start that conversation. They wanted to get into a dialogue about what a peacekeeping force would look like.
Our third meeting, as you said, was a step back. 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.
Glasser: Right. So, they were angry about that?
Volker: Well, we don’t know. It’s just that this was the sequence of events. We didn’t have a bilat; we had a meeting with Mr. Surkov in Belgrade, where it was clearly a step back. It was a cordial meeting, and we had a good discussion, but it was a step back. And we’ve got to see then what happens at our next meeting, which will be some time in December.
Glasser: Right. And of course, that is getting ever closer to March of 2018, when Vladimir Putin presumably is up for what all expect to be a more or less ceremonial reelection, but one nonetheless that has politics surrounding it. So, a lot of people—a lot of Russia watchers—have been wondering whether Putin is really in a position to do anything other than sort of tread water on Ukraine before the election. What’s your view?
Volker: Well, it’s an open question. He ran his 2012 election on the nationalist narrative, defending the Russian people against external enemies and justifying his continued leadership at home. How he chooses to run this election—whether he wants to play the same card, the nationalist card—whether he wants to play something different, we’ve yet to see.
I think it is quite sellable to say he has chosen to make peace; he has chosen to stop the fighting and the killing between Ukrainians and Russians. He will have achieved a special status for eastern Ukraine. He will have achieved the implementation of the Minsk Agreements, and the international community would be creating security in that space, including security for Russian-speaking people, as well as everyone else there.
So, he could claim a lot of accomplishments if he wanted to do that. But we don’t know how he wants to play that.
Glasser: Well, right, and of course, you have to allow for the possibility that that’s a version of a campaign that we might like to see, but Vladimir Putin has succeeded by not only bashing the United States and this nationalist narrative, but specifically creating for the last several years an entire public narrative on Russian television and in his pronouncements about literally this being the front lines of the war between Russia and the West, the war between Russia and the United States.
So, I’m sure there’s a certain note of skepticism that you have about whether Vladimir Putin is going to blow up the narrative he himself has created around this conflict.
Volker: That’s exactly right, and frankly, it’s only in his hands. All we can do is make clear that the continuation of things as they are is, it’s a hot war; it’s a humanitarian tragedy; it is mostly negative for the people in that area that they are claiming to protect. They’re the ones that are suffering the brunt of this. And it’s very costly for Russia.
They can do it. They’ve done it in Abkhazia; they’ve done it in Transnistria; they can do it. But it’s not a good option for them. And we can then also try to create the framework—what would an alternative look like? What would it look like for Russia to support a peacekeeping force in that territory, to see the Minsk Agreements get implemented, to see it restored to Ukrainian sovereignty, and how would that work for them?
I think that there are reasons why they would want to explore that, but they’ve got to be the ones to make the decision.
Glasser: So, of course, then we were talking a lot about the Russian side and sort of what does Mr. Putin want—always the essential question about Vladimir Putin since he came to power.
There’s also of course the American side, and I have got to ask the same question: What does Mr. Trump want? It’s very interesting to me how the administration is navigating the question of Russia policy at a moment when we talk about Russia in a way in Washington more than we ever have in yours and my memory.
Who are you working with on this? How much is this a consensus policy? And where does the current debate inside the administration on sending arms to Ukraine—where does that stand, and how does that complicate your job?
Volker: So, I was asked to take this role on by Secretary Tillerson, and I make a point of reporting directly to Secretary Tillerson and keeping that conversation very active. And I’ve had a chance to meet with most of the other senior Cabinet officials in the administration about Ukraine and what we’re doing.
I’d say there’s a high degree of consensus on this; this is a very unified position. And I did also get the chance to participate in President Trump’s meeting with President Poroshenko on the margins of the U.N. General Assembly. And I would say from that as well—I think there’s a very strong consensus in the administration, and that the simplest way to put it is the way the president put it, which is, he wants peace. There are people fighting and dying and he would like to see peace.
And in addition, if we are going to have any improvement in U.S.-Russia relations—which I think should be an objective of the United States—we don’t want to stay where we are. We’d like for this to be more constructive. Then we’re going to have to see progress on Ukraine. This is in the way of that, and that was a message that President Trump conveyed to President Putin in Hamburg at the G-20 meeting, and is one that remains true if we’re going to see an improvement—
Glasser: On arms for the Ukrainians, we could say it’s been debated back and forth for a long time. Do you think that will ultimately get approved—A—and then—B—what does that do to your peace negotiations?
Volker: Right. Well, it’s important to get the framing of what the question is correctly. This is a country—Ukraine’s a country that is fighting on its own territory to defend its country against violence, basically, and people are dying every day. So, this is a case of self-defense. It’s something that’s enshrined in the U.N. Charter. It’s something that every nation would do, that they would want to defend their territory, defend their population against aggression.
And, the U.S. has defense relationships and arms sales relationships with dozens and dozens and dozens of countries around the world. And 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. And this is all about defense, it’s not—
Glasser: Would this have made a difference, had the Obama administration—which similarly struggled with this and ultimately, again, you had the Secretary of State and the Pentagon recommending that they do this, but Obama refused. And you now have a situation where once again the State Department and the Pentagon are recommending this.
So, would it have made a difference, do you think, previously in this war, had that happened? And what would it do now if we do go ahead with it?
Volker: Well, the arguments that people made in the past I don’t think hold a lot of water. One argument was that this is going to cause an escalation, an arms race, Russia will always be able to out-escalate, you’re fueling the conflict. Well, the fact is, it is a conflict, and Russia’s already doing this, and they’re already fighting. So that’s not in my view a valid comment there.
Another would be that it would embolden the Ukrainians; they’re going to go on the offensive and attack. The Ukrainians are not stupid; they know that as well.
Another would be that there is this distinction between lethal military equipment and nonlethal military equipment.
Glasser: That seemed to be what hung up the Obama administration.
Volker: And again, the point of military equipment is, in fact, to be able to use force to defend yourself. And the Obama administration provided counterbattery radars, for example. Counterbattery radars allow you to identify where mortar fire is coming from, and target your fire back more accurately so that you’re able to kill the people who are doing it. That is called nonlethal, and yet, that was a very effective piece of assistance from the Obama administration to the Ukrainians, and I think an appropriate one.
It’s also important to remember, the Ukrainians produce lots and lots and lots of defense equipment themselves.
Glasser: Right. They were one of the armament centers of the Soviet Union.
Volker: Absolutely. And they still do that, and they have actually done a pretty good job of rebuilding their military. They were almost destroyed in 2014, and they’ve rebuilt since then, and they’re doing a credible job of maintaining a stability, if you will, along the line of conflict.
Glasser: Right. So, that’s what I wanted to ask you. There’s more or less—they kind of fought the Russians to a standoff here, the rebels—so, would this change—
Volker: I would say Russia has chosen not to go further into Ukrainian territory.
Volker: And I think the Ukrainians have built up a capability that reinforces that.
Glasser: Right. This is more like along the lines of deterrent, or making sure that Russia doesn’t launch a new offensive.
Volker: Exactly. Exactly. It’s deterrence.
Glasser: That’s the argument for it, at least.
Volker: Yeah. That’s the argument. Now, again, I don’t want to get down a rabbit hole here of this being the issue—this is just about, like any country in the world, Ukraine being able to defend itself, to deter aggression.
The bigger issue is whether Ukraine is successful as a country. Democracy. Market economy. Prosperity. Security. And so on. And whether we can resolve this conflict, which I think is an important step in restoring sovereignty, restoring territorial integrity in Europe, getting beyond the impasse that we have with Russia now, that’s where we would like to go.
Glasser: Well, I would say you’re definitely not over-dialing up our expectations that peace is going to break out any time soon. But just one more thing on this arms sale. You can imagine the alternate version of this, too, though, and how it plays in Russia.
Let’s say that Trump approves this and that happened sometime in the next month or so, before the presidential election. You can just see the Russian television version of this in Moscow, right? You know, like, the United States has once again embarked upon this very provocative action, and therefore, we need to do X, Y, and Z things in response, and it’s a whole new round of propaganda that helps to fuel Putin’s defending you against the evil aggressors of the West narrative before the election.
Volker: Well, first off, let me reiterate that I’m not—there isn’t any decision here—
Glasser: I understand that. I understand.
Volker: We’re not necessarily doing or not doing. And, related to that, then, to your question. I don’t think that we should be deciding what we do either way based on what we think the Russian narrative in the Russian media might be.
I think we need to make our own decisions about U.S. interests, U.S. national interests—how we want to position ourselves in the world—based on our own judgments, rather than those things.
Glasser: So, okay. Let’s talk for a second—because it’s very interesting, and I’m sure our listeners would be interested in this—you served in the Bush administration.
You’ve now come back to government in a very different circumstance. This is a very different kind of Republican administration, and I know you have lots of friends on both sides of the issue of this version of foreign policy, which in some ways, is a break with the past.
But you have a different take which I’ve heard you express on the State Department today. There obviously is a lot of questioning, a lot of public discourse about whether Secretary Tillerson is cutting too far, what’s happened to morale, what is this reorganization going to be? Nobody really knows. He was also going to eliminate the special envoys, except you, apparently. So there’s that interesting thing.
Tell us a little bit about why you decided to come in, and what you’ve found while you’re there at the State Department.
Volker: Well, the first part is really easy. I care about the issues. I care about Ukraine’s success as a country; I’d like to see the conflict resolved. I’d like to see us getting back to the idea we—you know, over many, many administrations, starting with George H.W. Bush and onward, we talked about a Europe whole, free and at peace. That we’re looking to promote democratic societies, prosperous, market-driven societies and security for everybody, indivisible, including Russia.
And we have never gotten there. We’ve made great progress. A number of countries that were not members of NATO in 1990 joined later on, and these are democratic, prosperous, secure countries—the Czech Republic, Estonia and so on.
So, we’ve made tremendous progress, but we have never gotten all the way there. And we then have a situation of active conflicts in Europe. So, if there’s a way to actually address these and solve these, I would love to do that. I’m ready to do whatever I can to be helpful for that.
Second is, because of that I don’t really get too worked up about the politics around it, whether it’s a Democratic administration, Republican administration—Bush, Trump, whatever. Let’s focus on what it is we’re trying to accomplish. And I do think there is a lot of consensus around that in reality. If you don’t get sucked into the domestic political debates that we have in this country and focus on the foreign policy substance, there’s actually a lot of consensus around that.
As for the State Department, the people in the State Department are great. They really are very smart, very dedicated, they want to contribute, they want to work hard. And transitions are difficult, and this has been a particularly difficult transition. And I think that, as people like Wes Mitchell are now in place—
Glasser: Who’s the new assistant secretary for Europe.
Volker: That’s right. The new assistant secretary for Europe. You’re getting some of the connective tissue between the political leadership at the very top of the administration, and the Foreign Service, and the career people that are there. And that’s what needs to grow. You’ve got to have that connective tissue in order for the State Department to feel that it is engaged and being used and that it can contribute.
And then on the numbers, the State Department grew a lot after 2001. If you look at the State Department budget around that time, and then where it went to after that, and some of the missions that the State Department took on after that, it was an enormous amount of growth.
And you mentioned the special envoy thing. A lot of special envoys—I think—I don’t know the actual number, but—
Glasser: It was like 78 or something people?
Volker: Yeah, a huge number. You know, I would like to think that the right way to do things is that the people who actually have the jobs that are nominated by the president, confirmed by the Senate, have responsibility for different regions in the world—that they have responsibility for the policy.
I was asked to take on these Ukraine negotiations at a time when there wasn’t an assistant secretary confirmed, and a lot of clamor from the French, the Germans, the Ukrainians, also Russians, to get somebody in for the United States to do that. And I’m happy to do it; I’m doing it on a voluntary basis, so I’m not taxing the taxpayers here. And I’d like—
Glasser: Oh, I didn’t realize that. That’s interesting.
Volker: Yeah, and I’d like to see this reabsorbed into the State Department when we’re at a point where that makes sense.
Glasser: That’s interesting, yeah, because they literally wanted someone from the U.S. to show up at the table.
Glasser: Just on this—I get your point about once you take away the politics of it, which have become super-charged around anything connected with Russia—that on the actual point, should the U.S. show up at the table, and try to help catalyze some kind of a peacekeeping process, that probably there’s a lot of consensus.
But, what do you make of—I mean, you worked for John McCain, who has been probably the most prominent Republican critic of President Trump’s foreign policy. And there clearly is still this sort of conflict between the “globalists”—which I guess you and I would both fit into that category—and this idea that there is a new kind of insurgent nationalism, America-First-ism, foreign policy.
Do you see that in a practice sense, or is it really not yet manifested itself?
Volker: So, that is engaging with the rest of the world. This is engaging with the rest of the world.
Glasser: Like, for example, there could be people who say, “Why bother? Why is it America’s job?”
Volker: Likewise, I can’t speak for Senator McCain—there are different points of view that are reflected in domestic politics. But … the question is, how you do these things? How do you actually deal with the foreign policy issue? And that’s where I think when you get down to what we need to actually do, there’s a lot of consensus.
People want strength. They want American values. They want American interests. They want to be successful. And I’d say that’s on both sides of the aisle, as well as any divisions even on the Republican side.
Glasser: Right. I mean, I think—look, one of the core questions is one that we were just talking about with regards to Surkov, which is, to what extent is this process really empowered by the respective leaders? Is Putin ready to make peace? Is Trump ready to make peace? So, in that sense, that’s kind of the essential question.
Volker: Sure. Well, 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.
With Putin, I think we see glimmers; we see a reason to think maybe they do. But they have to make the choice to do that, and they can very well choose the opposite.
Glasser: Well, and that’s a really important point. I was going to ask you, coming relatively fresh to this over the last few months, and sitting down three times with Surkov—what surprised you? What do you feel like you’ve learned as a part of this? Were there new insights, or different ways of seeing it than we’re generally seeing it here in Washington?
Volker: Well, I wouldn’t say that in that sense, but what I’ve been surprised by is the degree to which attitudes in Western Europe toward Russia have changed since I was last in government.
Glasser: And you were—I should make a point of saying—you were the U.S. Ambassador to NATO.
Volker: Yes, and that was 2008 to 2009. It was the time Russia invaded Georgia. And it was—there was just an unwillingness to speak frankly about what Russia was doing or to confront Russia in any serious way. And if you remember, after they invaded Georgia, within six months we have the big reset button and Lavrov and Secretary Clinton saying we’re moving on.
The attitudes in Western Europe today are very different towards Russia. There’s a lot more frankness, a lot more understanding of Russian meddling in their elections and their political processes, a lot more understanding of what Russia has done with its neighbors — Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine — it’s a different attitude than what we were looking at 10 years ago.
Glasser: Everybody’s a Russia hawk now.
Volker: Well, you know, Russia brings it on. People don’t want to be. People would like—that’s what the president always says: We would like to get along with Russia. But what Russia is doing makes it really hard.
Glasser: Well, you brought up the invasion of Georgia. I’ve always felt that that six-month period, as you said, after the invasion of Georgia really was a key period in somehow convincing Putin that the penalties for acting against his neighbors were not going to be so serious, and that that might have colored perhaps his miscalculation in going into Ukraine.
Volker: Yeah. I think that’s right. I think when you look at those two directly, he got a pass after invading Georgia. And so I think he thought he could probably get a pass in Ukraine. I also think, frankly, the red line in Syria on chemical weapons, and then when we didn’t act—we built up to it and then didn’t act—I think also convinced him that we wouldn’t act in the case of Ukraine.
And that led, as you said, to what I consider a miscalculation that he would get a pass again. And instead, we’ve had sanctions in place for three and a half years; we’ve had this change in attitude in Western Europe; we’ve had a change in attitude in this country. We’ve responded also by reinforcing deployments in the Baltic states, Poland, Romania, to strengthen NATO deterrence for our treaty allies. All of this is different from what I think he expected.
Glasser: Yeah, it’s interesting you brought up the issue of sanctions and NATO. Do you have a view—having watched this for a long time—about whether Ukraine in the future should still aspire to NATO membership?
Volker: Well, no one can take away their own aspirations. That’s for the Ukrainians to decide. What do they want for their country? Neither we nor Europeans or anyone else should negotiate over their heads and say their choices are limited. But what we should do is keep the standards in the same place. We shouldn’t be lowering standards for NATO membership; we have to insist on democracy, reform, market economy, anti-corruption, reformed military, contributions to common security, interoperability—all the things that the Czechs had to do, the Poles had to do—they’re still on the table. Which means that Ukraine is a long way away from getting to that point.
Glasser: Do you think that Poland and the Baltic states having joined NATO, is genuinely what has stopped Putin from further aggression?
Volker: Yeah. You know, it’s such a hypothetical, it’s hard to really piece it together. I do think that, knowing that if they were to do something in one of the Baltic states would result in a multinational response from Europe and the United States on that—is a deterrent.
Now, you could say, well, just as important as NATO in terms of the psychology, or you could say that no, even as a member of NATO, if we didn’t demonstrate more resolve, they might have done it anyway. So, there’s a lot of ways to look at that. But, I think the facts of where we are now is that Russia believes that we’ve demonstrated our willingness to respond, and so it’s not worth it.
Glasser: It’s interesting—I mean, you sort of sketched over the question of whether the Obama administration, in effect, inadvertently gave Putin the wrong signal, that the costs for intervention in his neighbors after Georgia was such that he could bear it, that he might have gone into Ukraine.
Do you think that message has gotten through? That this is no longer the case? Someone said to me they weren’t really convinced—someone from the administration. Does Vladimir Putin think this is like a hockey penalty—you sit in the box and get some sanctions for two minutes, and then you get to go back on the ice and resume playing? Has he ever really absorbed that this is not—you don’t get to just resume playing?
Volker: Well, yeah. The way I think of it is that Russia is not going to change fundamentally. They may change tactics; they may look at their interests and figure out what actions they take, but they’re not going to change fundamentally.
And they’re going to try to gauge what will the responses be to things that they do, and what will our things be. And here, they do wonder what is the level of our resolve? How far are we willing to go? And that is something that is very hard to gauge.
I think it was clear during the Obama administration that there was a limit—you know, we were not going to push Russia too hard—until they invaded Ukraine. And then the Obama administration changed, and there was a much tougher policy in the last couple of years than in the reset period.
With the new administration coming in, I don’t think they knew what is the new administration going to do? If they read our media, they’re certainly confused. And then, I think they’ve seen that there has been a very firm line on Syria, a very firm line on the embassy and the consulate in San Francisco, a firm line on Ukraine, and saying we want to get this done. And they’re not as clear in their minds where our level of resolve is.
But I think that that is stabilizing, in fact. I think they’re starting to feel like, okay, we need to start settling somethings, or start addressing some things. And that’s why—again, coming back to the topic here of Ukraine, they may actually find this as one of the areas where we may, indeed, be able to agree on something.
Glasser: So, we’ve got to finish up. But let me ask you, Ambassador, what is the percentage chance that they’re still fighting in Eastern Ukraine a year from now?
Volker: I’d say it’s at least 80 percent.
Glasser: Eighty percent?
Volker: I think that there’s a chance that there won’t be, but the most likely scenario is that this continues. That said, because the people are dying; it’s bad for the people within the Donbass, which is who Russia says they’re trying to protect. It’s bad for Ukraine itself. Over 10,000 people have been killed already. It would be a very, very sad thing if that were to be the case.
But we have to make every effort to solve it, and we have to be realistic that it’s tough.
Glasser: Will our grandkids be looking at a map of Crimean Peninsula that includes it in Russia?
Volker: No, it’s kind of like when I was growing up and you had the Baltic states with an asterisk saying the United States does not recognize the forcible incorporation of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania into the territory of the U.S.S.R. I think it’s going to be maps like that.
Glasser: So, we’ll take our retirement vacation trip to Yalta.
Volker: Well, hopefully, we’ll get a result sooner than that, so—but, fortunately for me, grandkids are probably not too far away.
Volker: Great. Susan, thank you very much for having me.
Glasser: Thank you.
Susan Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist and host of its new weekly podcast, The Global Politico.