Volker: West has made a lot of mistakes in Russia-Ukraine war

The West doesn’t spend enough time analyzing its miscalculations in the Russia-Ukraine war, Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, said in an interview with the Kyiv Independent.

“We have made many mistakes, from just before Russia's invasion and throughout. The biggest mistake was holding back on types of military assistance out of fear,” he said.

Volker served as the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations in 2017-2019, during former U.S. President Donald Trump’s tenure. He was also U.S. ambassador to NATO in 2008-2009.

Volker arrived in Kyiv to attend several big forums held on the occasion of the second anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion. He also took part in the graduation ceremony at the American University Kyiv, a private university that he co-founded.

The Kyiv Independent spoke with Volker following his press conference on Feb. 23, discussing aid to Ukraine tied up in Congress, Trump’s potential re-election in 2024, and the reasons why the West’s strategy of deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin has failed.

The Kyiv Independent: At the press conference, you mentioned that there's still room for maneuver when it comes to approving Ukraine aid in Congress, but do you think there is actual support for any of those moves? Did you hear anything from people in Washington that gives you hope?

Kurt Volker: Yes. I've spoken with several members of Congress and senators. The support for Ukraine is very strong on a bipartisan basis. Both the Republicans and the Democrats – about 80% of each party – are strongly supportive of Ukraine. I have no doubts that the votes are there and that it will get through.

The problem is an unrelated issue – the southern border and procedure. How do we get it done? That's what people are trying to figure out. I've spoken with a number of those who have ideas about how to do this. Just here in Kyiv last week or earlier this week Brian Fitzpatrick, a member of Congress from Pennsylvania and co-chair of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus was here. He has a proposal for how to advance this as well. So people are working on this, and I think it will get done.

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The Kyiv Independent: There's a lot of anxiety regarding Donald Trump's potential re-election this year. What do you think it would mean for Ukraine if he came back to the Oval Office? He has said multiple times he knows how to end this war. What do you think his strategy would be?

Kurt Volker: I don't think he knows what his strategy would be. I certainly don't know. I think that he is posturing for a political position. He's running for election and wants to say things that make him sound strong, tough, and smart. I don't think he has anything specific.

The one thing that I would highlight to people is, don't make any assumptions. Don't assume that you know what Donald Trump will do or what his views will be. Everybody should be themselves, look after their own interests, make proposals, and engage. Don't make any assumptions.

If you remember, when it was his first term of the presidency (if he gets reelected), he did have a lot of public warmth towards (Russian President) Vladimir Putin. But at the same time, he lifted the arms embargo on Ukraine, provided Javelin missiles, and shut down the Russian Consulate in San Francisco. He was very much opposed to Nord Stream 2. A lot of the policies were right, even though there was that personal style (of his) that people didn't like.

I would say if you're Ukrainian, you're going to have to work with whatever U.S. government we have. Do whatever you have to do. Be engaging, be proactive.

Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, speaks during a press conference at the American University Kyiv on Feb. 23, 2024. (Kyiv Independent)
Kurt Volker, a former U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations, speaks during a press conference at the American University Kyiv on Feb. 23, 2024. (Kyiv Independent)

The Kyiv Independent: Speaking of working with any U.S. government, based on your personal interactions with Donald Trump and everything you know about his style of management and governance, how should Ukraine work with him to get the best support possible?

Kurt Volker: The three things that I always say: Don't make any assumptions about what you think he's going to do; do your homework (whether it's about the economy, reforms, or the military); make proposals (take the initiative, be proactive about suggesting, be out there). Waiting and complaining create a negative dynamic, so you must be proactive.

The Kyiv Independent: And what is your assessment of the recent increased warnings about the potential Russian attack against NATO territory? You've mentioned that you think Russia is playing a game there and trying to create anxiety in Western countries. But is there any chance Russia could seriously consider that?

Kurt Volker: I think we could talk about it in the sense of hybrid attacks – cyberattacks, “little green men,” a little territorial scuffle – but not in the sense of a full-scale invasion of another country as they don't have the resources to do that. I could see them trying to test what NATO might do. We can't ignore that possibility.

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The Kyiv Independent: What do you make of these recent remarks by Trump about encouraging an aggressor state to attack a NATO country that doesn't meet the defense spending quota? What do you think Europe should make of those comments?

Kurt Volker: First off, remember what he was saying. He was bragging about what he claims he did in the past. This was not saying this is what he will do in the future. He was bragging about how he got NATO countries to spend more on defense. So it was all about getting NATO countries to spend money, and he succeeded. That's the political macho that he wants to show.

Nonetheless, the suggestion that it's okay for Russia to attack any country, especially a NATO ally, is an outrageous suggestion. And when you look at what Russia is doing in Ukraine with the killing, the bombing of the civilian population, civilian infrastructure, rape, abduction of children, and so forth, it is horrific. We should not wish this on anybody. I think it's a very callous, insensitive, and thoughtless thing to say, even in the context of a political campaign. It's the wrong thing to say. Europe and Ukraine do push back on that. That's not acceptable. But let's work on the future. What do we actually do together? Again, don't make assumptions about what he's going to do now. Do your homework and be proactive.

The Kyiv Independent: Western leaders often talk about Russia's miscalculations. They love to go back all the way to two years ago when there was this successful defense of Kyiv and Russia's miscalculation of capturing it in just three days. But do you think the West spends enough time analyzing its own miscalculations regarding the war? What do you think is the biggest one that the West has made?

Kurt Volker: It definitely doesn’t (spend enough time). We have made many mistakes, from just before Russia's invasion and throughout. The biggest mistake was holding back on types of military assistance out of fear. Because we were afraid of Russian escalation. It was a huge mistake. We should have understood from the beginning that Putin intends to win and defeat Ukraine. We should be giving Ukraine everything that we can to prevent that. Because if Putin loses in Ukraine, we will deter future war. If Putin is able to get away with aggression in Ukraine, he will do it again and again and again. So that is a big mistake.

The Kyiv Independent: Do you also consider it a miscalculation not accepting Ukraine as a member of NATO now?

Kurt Volker: Yes, I do. I think that's a mistake as well. Every time we fail to give Ukraine a clear pathway to membership, Putin knows that he has deterred us. He has caused us not to do something because we're afraid. People in the West need to make policy not out of fear but out of purpose. We need to know what we believe and what we are trying to achieve, not just be afraid.

The Kyiv Independent: The West keeps stubbornly saying that it will support Ukraine as long as it takes, but there's no public commitment to help Ukraine win this war. If not a Ukrainian victory, what is the West's real objective in this war?

Kurt Volker: That's the question. That's exactly the question. What do you mean when you say “as long as it takes?” As long as what takes? What are you trying to accomplish? And you never get an answer to that. We need to change that. We need to say: "We are here for Ukraine's victory and the defeat of Russian forces in Ukraine." We're not talking about defeating Russia. No one's invading Russia. No one's trying to take Russian territory. But Russia has to be defeated in Ukraine. We can not allow this aggression to succeed.

Note from the author:

Hi there. This is Toma Istomina, deputy chief editor at the Kyiv Independent. Thank you for reading this interview. You don't see my byline often because I mostly edit other journalists' stories you read on our website, but I have been working tirelessly since day one of the Kyiv Independent and even more tirelessly since the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. It has been incredibly difficult to live in a country at war and see all the atrocities Russian forces brought here. This war is a matter of existence for Ukrainians, which is why we continue to fight. But it means the world to have international support and not feel alone in this fight. Please consider supporting the Kyiv Independent by becoming our memeber.

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