‘Using nuclear would be the end of Russian military’ – interview with former US ambassador Kurt Volker

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt

Andrius Balčiūnas, LRT.lt2022.10.31 08:00

Kurt Volker

Kurt Volker / E. Blaževič/LRT

Moscow will inevitably lose the war in Ukraine, but Russia’s threat to its neighbours will not go away, so the only way to ensure security in Europe is to admit Ukraine – as well as Georgia and Moldova – into NATO, says former US ambassador Kurt Volker.

In an interview with LRT.lt, he says the war may end next year and it will not be a success for Moscow. And if Vladimir Putin were to resort to nuclear weapons out of desperation, it would have catastrophic consequences.

“The Russians know that this would be the end of the Russian military if they did it,” says the former ambassador.

Volker served as Washington’s ambassador to NATO in 2008-2009 and as US special representative for peace talks in Ukraine in 2017-2019. Volker had to testify in the impeachment inquiry against former US President Donald Trump who allegedly tried to involve Kyiv in settling score with his domestic political rivals.

Volker is currently an adviser to the Board of Directors of the Lithuanian company Avia Solutions Group (ASG), which has attracted controversy for close business ties with Russia and Kremlin-linked Russians. According to Volker, however, ASG is no different from other international companies that are only now disentangling from the Russian market.

You were Washington’s special envoy for Ukraine negotiations. In a previous interview three years ago, you told me that negotiations between Russia and Ukraine were possible, if the Russians wanted to engage in meaningful talks. How do you see the situation now? Are there any prospects for talks between Moscow and Kyiv?

No, I don’t see it at all. I think that Putin has committed himself to a set of military objectives in Ukraine that he does not have the ability to achieve. And he is increasingly desperate to try to achieve these objectives. He’s committed and will not back down.

Kurt Volker

Kurt Volker / E. Blaževič/LRT

So the only thing now is for Russia to lose. He doesn’t have the means to win. They will lose and I think that will also have repercussions for him inside Russia. And he knows that, so he’s in a very desperate situation and at this stage there’s no prospect of any negotiations.

What do you make of the recent developments on the battlefield – Russians withdrawing from Kherson, movement restrictions in Russia’s borderland regions? Is this the final stage of the war?

Yeah, final throws of the conflict. It’s gonna take a little while, it’s not going to be over this year. But first off, what we are seeing in terms of the drone strikes and the aerial bombardment of Ukrainian cities is a sign of Russia’s weakness.

They don’t have the ability to advance on the battlefield. They can’t seize new territory. They can’t even hold the territory that they have, and the Ukrainians will be pushing back on that. They don’t have their own weapons, so they’re going to Iran to get drones, they’re going to North Korea to ask for missiles, they’re going to Belarus and taking out ammunition from stockpiles.

So they’ve really depleted themselves. They wouldn’t be trying to conscript 300,000 people if they hadn’t already lost more than a hundred thousand. And the new soldiers they’re recruiting are untrained, unfit, they don’t want to be there. So these desperate moves show the weakness of Putin trying to keep this war going.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainians are highly motivated, they are well equipped by the West they have taken care of their personnel throughout the war, so they’re in a better shape and they are pushing back on Russian forces. We’re seeing reports that they are making fresh gains in Kherson Oblast, they are likely to retake Kherson city and all of that oblast west of the Dnipro River before the winter.

Dnipro, Ukraine

Dnipro, Ukraine / AP

The Russians are now talking about destroying a dam that is blocking the flow of the Dnipro River which would devastate some settlements and people, and blaming the Ukrainians for this. But this would be a cover for their withdrawal, so I think that we are beginning to see the withdrawal of Russian forces from the west bank of the Dnipro. We’re also seeing the Ukrainians continue to target areas in Luhansk Oblast where I think they will also succeed in making gains before the winter.

The final thing I think we’re going to see is continued attacks by the Ukrainians on Russian logistical supply chains: the Kerch Strait bridge, where there’s a rail line, the road connection from Rostov through Donbas, Mariupol, Melitopol, Zaporizhia, Kherson. Ukrainians want to disrupt that supply chain and make sure it’s not usable.

One other thing comes to mind – the military bases on Crimea itself. The Ukrainians will do a lot more to try to take out the military capacities the Russians have at their air bases and the naval base at Sevastopol. And the naval base is particularly important because that’s where the Russians can go to resupply their ships with fuel, ammunition, soldiers. If the Ukrainians can take that out, the Russians have to go all the way back to Novorossiysk. And that will tremendously improve security in the western Black Sea, which would allow Ukraine to move towards opening up the port of Odessa fully, which it needs to get its economy back on track.

Russian soldiers in Crimea

Russian soldiers in Crimea / AP

Do you think the Ukrainians are capable of fully recapturing the territory occupied by Russia?

Yes, I think so. Provided we continue the supply of arms that that we started with. And I think they have not only the capability, they have the determination to do it. They look at the 2014, 2015 settlement [Minsk accords] as one that empowered Russia, it accepted a Russian occupation of parts of Ukrainian territory. And that set the stage for Russia’s further aggression in 2022. I think they’re determined now to reverse all of this.

Have you personally met President Volodymyr Zelensky when you were working in Ukraine?

Yes, I met him several times, when I was a special representative in official capacity, I’ve also seen him a couple of times since then.

He always struck me as someone who was sincerely committed to supporting Ukraine, changing the system, fresh approach to politics. It turned out that after he was in power for a few years, his popularity went down because governing a place like Ukraine is very difficult and there are lots of vested interests. But when Russia launched these new attacks in February, he’s exactly the right person for the job. He has the ability to channel the spirit of the Ukrainian people, communicate that internationally, show determination and resolve, which is what the Ukrainians needed at that time.

Kurt Volker

Kurt Volker / E. Genys/LRT

And are you concerned that Russia might use nuclear weapons? 

First off, yes, we should be concerned that this is a possibility. They have tactical nuclear weapons and there is a chance that they could use them. So any use would be devastating and we have to think about that.

That being said, I don’t think it is the most likely scenario. I think it will not achieve a military objective for Putin. You can’t seize and hold territory if you make it radioactive. It would also damage his own forces, they’re not prepared.

They also know that there would be a devastating military response against Russian forces if they did it. And there’s been a clear warning from national security advisor Jake Sullivan, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, some military officers from the US. So I think the Russians know that this would be the end of the Russian military if they did it.

This is important because it’s not only about Russia and Ukraine, it’s about the use of nuclear generally. We can’t live in a world where the use of nuclear weapons is tolerated or countries can do it and get away with it. So we have to prevent it and if it’s done, there has to be a response.

Ukraine

Ukraine / AP

Do you think that the West and NATO have done enough to support Ukraine? And will their support continue, especially after the midterm elections in the US?

I would split this in two pieces. First, we’ve already been through eight months of the war and Ukraine would not be standing today without the support that was given by the United States. over 15 billion dollars worth of military equipment along with the advice and training that goes with that support from European countries. And financial support, 1.5 billion dollars from the US every month. This has been essential.

That being said, we have been slow and restricted in what we’ve given to Ukraine, we have said no to things before we changed our minds and said yes. We originally said no Stinger missiles and then we gave them Stingers, we said no to artillery, then we gave them artillery, we said no Himars, then we gave them Himars, we said no fighter aircraft and I think that’s also going to change at some point.

Air defence is another one – we knew months ago that the only recourse Putin has as he’s losing the war is to hit Ukrainian cities with random bombings. And that’s in fact what we’re now seeing. Why didn’t we give them their defences two months ago? So those are the things where I think we could have and should have done a lot better. But nonetheless, we’ve done enough and Ukraine is going to win.

As far as the future goes, we have a near term period after the midterm elections of about two years, where I think we can be very confident about continued US support for Ukraine on a bipartisan basis, both in the House and in the Senate.

And I know people will have seen the presumptive speaker Kevin McCarthy’s remarks saying, well, there’s no blank cheque for Ukraine. But I view that as kind of astute politics by McCarthy. He’s not saying we’re going to decrease support for Ukraine. He’s saying it has to be accountable. There’s no blank cheque, we have to know where it’s going why it’s there. It’s a way of sending a signal to the far right that it’s not open-ended, we’re not just giving away resources with no result, we’re going to pay attention to this. But it’s also, therefore, a way of keeping them onboard while we continue our support to Ukraine.

Kevin McCarthy

Kevin McCarthy / AP

I am more concerned about when we head into a presidential election two years from now. Then I think we run the risk of a re-domesticating Ukraine as a domestic political issue – just what we saw in 2019 and it was disastrous for our Ukraine policy. We don’t want to go through that again, but there’s a risk as quite possibly it’s going to be former President Donald Trump and President Joe Biden squaring off in the next election.

I hope that two years is enough for Ukraine to win the war. And I think we’ll see this change next year. Russia is already losing so it’s most likely that the war will end next year sometime.

What about the future of Ukraine, can it become a NATO member or receive some other security guarantees?

I think the only long-term security for Ukraine – and, for that matter, Europe – is for Ukraine to be in NATO, I don’t see any other way.

People are looking for alternatives: what about security guarantees for Ukraine, what about helping Ukraine build up a modern professional military with all the best equipment, be like Israel in Europe? But if you’re willing to do that, then why not NATO? 

Take it from a US point of view – if the US is going to give a security guarantee to Ukraine and mean it, why would we do that by ourselves? We want 30 other countries to join in this, to make it more solid. Similarly if you’re Poland or the UK – if US is not offering a security guarantee, why would you? We all have to do this together.

I understand why this is not a topic of discussion today. No one wants to create the image that this is a NATO war against Russia. It’s not, this is Russia’s war against Europe, Russia’s war against Ukraine. And we don’t want to confuse the optics of this. But when the war is over and Ukraine has won, has its territory back, and Russia is going through some soul-searching, we have to think about what it will take to actually have security. That will mean deterring future Russian attacks. And the best way is for Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova to be parts of NATO.

Avia Solutions Group

Avia Solutions Group / D. Umbrasas/LRT

You work with Avia Solutions Group, a Lithuanian company that has attracted considerable criticism for their business relations with the Russian market and Russian individuals. Are you concerned about those connections?

I think all of us, I mean Western governments, were too slow in putting sanctions on Russia. We should have sanctioned them more when they claimed to annex Crimea and then even last fall in 2021 when they were building up their military forces around Ukraine. We should have put in place sanctions then in order to deter them from attacking Ukraine, rather than waiting until they attacked and then sanctioning them.

And Avia Solutions Group is like a lot of other western companies. As long as it was legal and profitable, they did do business in Russia. And we have some American companies that are still disentangling from Russia. You have Boeing, you have McDonald’s, you have Daimler, you have Total, BP, all of them did business in Russia and all of them have now had to pull out. And I think Avia Solutions Group is right in the same stream as everybody else, having done business, having pulled out, and then having really reoriented itself.

The advice I would give to any company, whether it’s ASG or anybody else, is basically four pillars that you need in your corporate strategy now. Nothing to do with Russia, no new investment in China, make sure you have a strong footing in the EU and the US, and do something for Ukraine. And if that’s your corporate strategy, then and you’ve got a solid foundation.

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3 comments

  1. I thought so to, would have been BETTER, had he left TRUMP out. Yes, he was part of the biased/lying bunch that were UNABLE TO IMPEACH TRUMP. Had Trump been impeached, yeah, add him to your story and brag, but you were unsuccessful. There is NO OTHER HUMAN ON EARTH, that has been investigated more than the Trump Family and NOTHING was ever charged against him, they still trying to this day, staging everything!

    Liked by 1 person

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