Find out our exclusive interview with Kurt Volker, a fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis and former special US envoy to Ukraine.
How do you see from here in Kyiv the perception of the world of the war in Ukraine changed during these six months and what global processes it launched?
It has really been a transformational period for the perceptions of Ukraine in the rest of the world. If you go back, say December and I happen to be in Brussels in December, there were people who would still talk about Ukraine as, oh, it’s a big challenge. They have a lot of corruption. They need to do a lot of reforms. Even as Russia was building up its military forces, it’s just seen as over there somehow and not adopting it as their own concern. But it’s complicated. And after Russia’s invasion, unprovoked, committing war crimes, killing civilians, everything that we’ve seen and the resolve and the determination of the Ukrainian people and their ability to fight, defend themselves, push the Russians back. This has changed perceptions of Ukraine completely. Europeans in their offices in Brussels and I was there in March, we’re talking just a few weeks after the war began. Now they’re wearing lapel pins with the Ukrainian flag. They have flags in their offices. They talk about Ukraine as part of a European family. They’ve seen we’ve seen the candidate status for Ukraine from European Union now. So instead of seeing Ukraine as a challenge and over there now people see Ukraine as a European democracy, which is fundamental, this means that Ukraine’s future as a part of Europe is now clear. Likewise, I think the United States has gone from seeing Ukraine as something that was just a little bit mysterious to something that people understand and say, no, this is a country, it’s a democracy. They’re trying to defend themselves. They need our help. And our help has been effective and welcomed. And that has created a very different perception.
I want to ask you about the consequences of the war in Ukraine. It doesn’t take only European countries interests. It’s globally. Yeah. So Taiwan is the consequence of the Ukrainian war, the Russian-Ukrainian war? Or it’s just parallel action and it doesn’t take only China?
Ukrainian defense against Russia is important for the world because Putin’s ideology, there’s this imperialist ideology that denies the existence of neighboring countries such as Ukraine, denies the existence of the language of people, of a history of culture, and asserts that Russia should just be able to take this. This is the kind of imperialism that gave us World War Two. And that needs to be stopped in order to prevent any further escalation into war. We need to stop it now. So that’s important for everybody that this ideology not be allowed to prevail. The second thing is that China’s view of Taiwan is self-driven. It’s not about Ukraine. It is not because of Ukraine. It’s not affected much by Ukraine. China’s view is that Taiwan has always been an integral part of China. It has a different government now, but no one has recognized Taiwan as an independent state. It is an integral part of China. And so China’s willingness to use force to reabsorb Taiwan is something that it sees as very different from Russia’s aggression against a sovereign, independent Ukraine. And it doesn’t want the rest of the world to see these in parallel either. China wants us to understand Europe, to understand that it’s different, that Taiwan has always been part of China. Because we also have a one China policy, but we don’t want to see the use of military force in the defeat of an autonomous and free and democratic Taiwanese government. And so we are trying to maintain a stable balance of forces in Asia and prevent the outbreak of war. China is very unhappy about certain things. They’re unhappy about Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. But I think they also recognize that war in Asia would not be in their interest. And I think they are observing that Russia’s war against Ukraine is backfiring for Russia, and they certainly don’t want to launch a similar process in Asia. So they are playing this for a much longer period of time. Much different philosophy. And they don’t want the two to be confused.
So you want to say that some diplomatic and not friendly moving towards U.S. after the visit of Nancy Pelosi by China and the sheltering between Taiwan and China after her visit will not spread to some wide conflict?
I don’t think that is likely to become a wider conflict in any near-term period of time. China could not fail to react to Nancy Pelosi’s visit. So they’ve launched these missiles over Taiwan. As you noted, they’re doing a large-scale military exercise. But to take it beyond that, I think, would be not in China’s interest. And so I think they’re going to play this carefully. And again, they’re not in a hurry. They have time on their side, unlike Russia, where they look at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and see it as damaging Russia. They don’t want to see China damaged.
Russia is seeking companions through war, the same outcasts countries, the countries with sanctions, the countries with poor population to help them politically because I don’t understand what they actually can get from these countries. Why these companions are like this?
It’s a sign of weakness that any country with any capability of its own, economically, politically, etc., they want to keep a distance from Russia. They don’t approve of Russia’s unprovoked aggression. They don’t approve of war crimes and killing civilians. So they just keep a distance. Countries that are in a weaker position that might need some currency, they might need trade, they might need import energy. They’ll try to do business with Russia, but they’re going to be careful as well because they don’t want to be tied up in the global sanctions against Russia. So I think Russia is in a weak position, economically isolated, politically isolated, and militarily. It’s killed half of its own combat capability. So they are in a weaker position, looking for anywhere where they can find some means of showing some kind of support.
I just want to quote a recent interview by the Foreign Minister of India. He told, India doesn’t help to bypass sanctions to Russia, even though India now is a key point of transshipment of Russian oil is just the market. And this war affects them too. It impacts the costs. Shopping and buying Russian gas is not funding the war.
Well, he didn’t say he’s a companion to Russia. He said that in India. He said a couple of things. One of them, he’s calling out European hypocrisy because he’s saying, you guys are buying Russian oil and gas and that’s funding the war. So why are you complaining to us about trans shipments of Russian oil and gas? It’s your problem. And that is a it’s a very consistent message from India or from the south is to point the finger back at Europe for hypocrisy, telling them to do things that they are not willing to take on or show sacrifice themselves. So that’s one thing. The second thing is they have their own economic interests and they are impacted by the war. So they actually will pay attention to what their own economic interests are. And the third thing is, we have not made it as clear as we should that Russia will be defeated and Ukraine will prevail and survive as a sovereign, independent state. Because what they are worried about is that Putinism and Russia survive and they’re going to have to deal with that. You know, they’re not in Europe. They’re totally different part of the world. They have their own different economic interests. And they’re going to have to deal with Russia. They know they’re going to have to deal with China. And they don’t want to be at odds with both Putinism in Russia and China at the same time. So they don’t want to get forced into a position that’s against their own interests. So I understand that what we need to do is make clear the principles involved in Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, make clear that we will not allow imperialism like that to survive and to succeed, and that the end of the day, they will be dealing with a different kind of Russia, not one that is taking over its neighbors and asserting an imperial authority with a with an iron hand.
Should we pay attention to these countries right now? Do they really have real power to change the situation in Ukraine?
I think we need to look at ourselves. The Indian foreign minister makes a lot of good points here. And another thing we have not gone through and systematically closed loopholes in our own sanctions policy. So, for instance, sanction big Russian banks, but not smaller ones. And then the big Russian banks use the smaller Russian banks to conduct transactions. And it’s a cut-out. Similarly, sanctioning third parties that are assisting Russia to evade sanctions. We ought to be more diligent about doing that. And we’re not doing so. So nobody wants to be caught in that. The Indians don’t want to be caught in that. You know, Chinese companies don’t want to be caught in that. So if we are more diligent, then we can actually have more of an impact. So I think it’s wrong to put it on to the Indians to say you need to do something on your own, that we’re the ones that are taking the lead here. We should be more focused and more comprehensive in the way that we implement sanctions, diplomacy. Its diplomacy is important to keep channels of dialog open. And when there are some mutual interests, you can actually help identify them and help decide how to frame things and what to do in ways that can be beneficial. You know, diplomacy doesn’t work when you have one party like Putin interested in waging a war against another country and taking it over, that there’s no diplomacy there. Putin has to be defeated. And then at the end of that, maybe diplomacy can create the framework of peace. But until that point, diplomacy is not going to do much. And diplomacy with India is not going to get them to change Putin.
What if we work not only in India, Latin American countries, some African or Asian countries? Our president Zelensky got a chance to pronounce his view of the situation all around the world, in every parliament.
he’s done an outstanding job and he’s communicated globally very effectively. He has amassed a tremendous popular understanding of Ukraine across the world. This is really quite something. At the same time, I don’t think you can expect every country around the world that feels that Ukraine is far away, not connected to their own interests, and not part of their daily lives. It’s just not going to be a motivator for them. Yes. And they also don’t want to take on unnecessary risks. So to be closer to home, they like the Gulf states. I think they’ve been reluctant to really be too critical of Russia because they don’t know how the war is going to end and they may have to deal with Russia again later. So they’re just going to be cautious about that. It’s on those of us who are directly affected by the conflict, who stand up for principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, democracy, independence, and freedom in Ukraine, to work together to make sure this comes out the right way. And the rest of the world will, I believe, be in alignment with that. But we have to be the ones to do the lifting. And I say we not just Ukraine, but the United States, European Union. We need to be the ones to make sure that we are making this come out right.
It depends on some other countries in Europe, for example, Germany, Italy, US.
The European Union and Hungary.
What did we didn’t do to end to make these countries our real partners? Why are they balancing between Russian interests and supporting Ukraine?
Every country is different. And I think in the case of Germany, there is a tremendous public understanding and sympathy for Ukraine. You can’t escape that deep concern about Russia’s aggression. And then they come down to it. A lot of tactical questions. What is the best way to have a pathway for dealing with Russia again in the future? Because it’s very deeply embedded in the German mindset that Russia will always be there. We’re going to have to have some way of living with Russia as a neighbor. So they want to keep a door toward that. I think that is exaggerated. I think that they underestimate the importance of the principles at stake. But that is a factor in German thinking. So that’s one thing. That’s why it’s important for the US, the UK, Poland, France to get more in front of that, to give the Germans political cover, say that, no, all of us are acting in a more assertive way to support Ukraine because we cannot accept this this imperial aggression from Russia. And that will give Germany more space to be more supportive as well. In the case of Hungary. I was very pleased to see that Hungary did not block the candidate status for Ukraine joining the European Union. There have been issues between Ukraine and Hungary in the past that you don’t hear as much about them now. I hope there’s a window too to continue to put those into the past. I think that Hungary asserts a very unique view of its own national interests, including in energy, but that is already being reshaped by realities of the European energy market. And I think that that will create more opportunities to to reach out to Hungary on issues here. Hungary ultimately wants an independent and sovereign Ukraine because it doesn’t want a border with Russia either. So there is room to work with Hungary, and I think that is something that we’ll have to continue to work on within the context of the European Union, where ultimately Hungary’s interests are deeply embedded.
The aim of the previous wars was resources, but now it is consciousness. So how the world will look? And what is this war for, actually?
It’s an interesting question. I don’t think we should throw around the idea of World War Three very lightly, because right now the war is in Ukraine. Ukrainians are fighting, they’re dying, they’re losing jobs are losing the economy. It is a life and death struggle for Ukraine in the rest of the world. We’re talking about higher prices. We’re talking about information. It’s not the same. It’s not the same. We shouldn’t confuse what Ukraine is doing with what we’re experiencing in the United States or Germany or anywhere else. So that’s one thing. The second thing is, okay, yes, there is a battle going on for information and, you know, perceptions of power globally, where the narrative of Ukraine, the narrative of freedom, the narrative of democracy is being undermined by a counter-narrative of Russia being a victim, of failing to defend itself of Ukrainians, of fascists, of Western democracies being hypocrites and so forth. Yes, that’s out there. It’s always been out there. Unfortunately, Russia has gotten very good at this. Their disinformation capabilities are far greater than their military capabilities, and we are not dealing with this as effectively as we should. But the good thing there is we actually have what you can see with your own eyes on our side. Russia can say as much as they want that they’re not surveying Ukraine. But look around, where are the Nazis? You know, so this is not a credible argument. Russia can say that Ukrainians committed genocide against themselves in order to blame Russia. This is simply not credible and everybody knows that. So despite Russia’s push into the information environment and the fact that they do make headway in some ways and, you know, they do cause us to doubt ourselves, we actually have a much stronger narrative based in reality that which public can see and adapt and deal with.
Can you make sure you all Ukrainians that cold winter and manipulation with gas and oil by Russia will not throw Ukraine out of the main agenda?
We anticipate a difficult winter for everybody, for Ukraine. Of course, it’s going to be difficult both with fighting and with energy supplies and the economy of Europe. Yes, they’re going to be dealing with higher energy prices and restrictions on energy availability, but, you know, much easier for them than for Ukraine. And it’s going to be difficult for Russia as well, too. They’re not going to find this winter to be as easy as they think. So it’s difficult all around. But in the end of the day, and this is a good note to close on, Ukraine has already won the war. From this perspective, there is no doubt in anyone’s mind that Ukraine survives as a sovereign, independent European democracy. It will always be here. It will always be a part of Europe. It will always be Ukraine. And this is something that no one can take away. Putin has failed to succeed and his objective to eliminate Ukraine. That is for sure. Now, what we’re talking about is how does the war play out? How does Ukraine get stronger? How does it get the territory back? How does it integrate into Europe? These are the topics now, not Ukraine’s survival.
We all need to work together to do as much as we can to make sure that Ukraine comes out of this as strong as possible. Better in the end, even than before. And that we live in a better world where the type of aggression we’re seeing from Russia is not the way of the future. So that’s that’s something we all have to work on.