He knows Russia and Ukraine pretty well as he served as US ambassador to NATO in 2008-09 and US representative for Ukraine negotiations in 2017-19. Ambassador Kurt Volker, distinguished fellow at the Washington-based Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), founding executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, and sought-after academic and consultant on foreign relations, spoke to Kathimerini about the evolving crisis in Ukraine.
– American troops are sent to Europe while Russia continues to build up forces close to the Ukrainian border. Do you see any path toward de-escalation?
Not really. I think that Putin has decided. He wants to do something here. He made very unreasonable demands for NATO to recognize Russia’s sphere of influence. He knew that NATO would never agree to this. So he clearly did this to have a pretext to use some kind of military force. He thinks that NATO and Europe are weak and they’re not going to respond. I think he’s on a project to establish a greater Russia. In 2022 we have the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Soviet Union. He is interested in founding a Greater Russia on the remnants of the Soviet Union.
– Do you think Germany would accept that?
Germany seems to think it is reasonable for Russia to have its own sphere of influence around itself.
– It is said that in 1990, US Secretary of State James Baker assured Mikhail Gorbachev with the famous phrase “not an inch eastwards,” regarding the enlargement of NATO.
That’s a fiction. There was no agreement, either written or oral. There was no promise from NATO or Secretary of State Baker or anyone else that NATO would not enlarge. There was a commitment not to put the military infrastructure of NATO on the territory at East Germany. Baker has given interviews about this where he confirmed that, and so has Gorbachev.
– Is Europe returning to an era of great power confrontation?
Yes. That’s what’s happening.
– Washington has started to coordinate measures to replace Russian gas with Qatari gas for Europe. Do you think it’s succeeding?
This is a little misleading. There are global gas and oil markets already from which people can buy gas. But you can’t all of a sudden have more available gas than there is, and global gas markets are already very tight. So, on the one hand, yes, people can reorient where they choose to buy, but it’s not going to happen overnight.
– So we don’t have a grand strategy developing in Washington to decouple Europe from Russia and cause the Russian gas market to collapse in case of invasion.
I don’t see how you can do that. I don’t know enough about the global gas market, but I don’t believe that you can shift production and demand that quickly.
– But if Russia invades, could we then see a reorientation of the global gas markets?
You could do that with concerted efforts and commitment by all the countries to stop buying the Russian gas and turn elsewhere. But I think Germany, in particular, is going to keep a connection to Russian gas. Probably some others as well, like Hungary, Austria, Greece, Serbia… It’s not going to be 100% shut off.
– Is there enhanced cooperation between Russia and China in order to confront the West?
There’s no strategic alliance between China and Russia. China feels quite independent. They don’t need Russia apart from buying natural resources. But there are some tactical things that I think both of them have put in place, including financial arrangements. Putin may have access to financing from China. Also, they reinforce each other in keeping pressure on some Asian countries because they share territorial concerns. But I don’t think it goes beyond that and I don’t think you have a lasting alliance between the two.
– Would it be more difficult for Putin to adopt this stance if Donald Trump was in the White House?
Well, the one thing that I think is true here is that President Trump was highly unpredictable and therefore I think Russians may have calculated a greater risk not knowing exactly what he would do.
– Biden talked about “a minor incursion” in a recent press conference.
It was a huge error. He also implied there were differences between allies.
– It was not untrue. It was just undiplomatic.
Yes. I do not disagree. I think that’s true. However, the responsibility of the leader is not just to say everything that’s true. The responsibility of the leader is to set direction and the policy, to lead and to mobilize.
– Right now, what would be the most effective strategy for the United States?
We should be massively expanding our assistance to Ukraine’s armed forces so that Putin can see that the costs of a military invasion are just rising very quickly. We’re not going to send troops to fight Russians, I accept that, but we should do everything short of that to help the Ukrainians.
– If Russia proceeds and invades, is Ukraine fit to defend itself and cause complications to the Russian strategy?
Ukraine has a 200,000-strong active-duty military, 400,000 reservists. They can sustain a conflict for a long time with assistance. Yes, Ukraine has the ability to make it costly for Russia to invade. The further it goes west, the more costly it will be for Russia. Until now, Russia has tried to hide behind separatists and Little Green Men and hybrid operations, and unknown cyber attackers. Now, it’ll be costly for Russia to proceed to an open invasion. That’s why I think Russia will not go too far into Ukraine. They’ll take territory north of Crimea and east of Crimea and create a continuous land area that connects to Russia and then they’ll stop. I think this will last just a few weeks and then the Russians will stop.
The Germans and the French and everybody will be calling for a cease fire. And Russians will say, “OK, we’ll have a cease fire and then we’ll have to do dividing lines.” And this time I will not at all be surprised if Russia annexes the territory like they did with Crimea before… The big question mark in my mind is Kharkiv, the northeastern city in Ukraine. Would they take it out or not? They might… But they would not go as far west even as Poltava. I think they will be staying in the south and east. It will be a third of the country.
– So countries should choose alliances again. What does this mean for Greece?
Greece is a member of NATO and is therefore secure. It doesn’t have to worry about being invaded by Russia. Greece will need to continue to think about its role as a member of NATO. Other NATO members may be more at risk, and it is important to show solidarity.
– Yes, but Greece has developed very close political and economic ties with Russia. Should we rethink those ties?
To a degree, yes. No one has yet come to the position of saying we have to freeze all relationships with Russian. In fact, we want to see Russia become like a normal country. So interaction with Russia can help with that. But, in some ways, when it is giving sustenance to this authoritarian system, which is an aggressor in Europe, if it’s the energy sector that fuels the Russian budget and the Russian economy, then I think that’s where we have to start thinking differently about how our actions are actually propping up this aggression.