The former NATO ambassador inherits a simmering conflict in Ukraine and a showdown with Russia.
- By Robbie GramerRobbie Gramer is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. He writes for The Cable, FP’s real-time take on all things, well, foreign policy. Before he joined FP in 2016, he used to think in a tank, managing the NATO portfolio at the Atlantic Council for three years. He’s a graduate of American University’s School of International Service, where he studied international relations and European affairs. He has lived in both Washington and Brussels, though he grew up in Idaho and Oregon, so he’s a West Coaster at heart. When he’s not busy reporting, he’s probably busy starting three new books before he has finished the last one or planning a trip to a national park he hasn’t visited yet.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tapped former U.S. ambassador to NATO Kurt Volker to be special representative to Ukraine, as the Trump administration grapples with how to end conflict in the war-shattered country more than three years after Russia’s invasion.
With Volker’s appointment, announced hours before President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin met face-to-face for the first time, the Trump administration now has a Russia hawk with extensive diplomatic experience charged with running the day-to-day slog ending a frozen conflict.
“The fact that they appointed [Volker] is a sign this administration is serious about Ukraine,” John Herbst, former U.S. ambassador to Kiev, told Foreign Policy.
That seriousness could push all sides into honoring the Minsk accords, an internationally-monitored ceasefire plan hastily brokered in 2015 as the conflict flared up.
“Kurt’s wealth of experience makes him uniquely qualified to move this conflict in the direction of peace,” said Secretary Tillerson in a statement released Friday. “The United States remains fully committed to the objectives of the Minsk agreements, and I have complete confidence in Kurt to continue our efforts to achieve peace in Ukraine.”
But his job could be made more difficult by Trump and Tillerson, who six months into office haven’t yet outlined a clear Ukraine strategy.
“It’s still a mystery as to where Trump and Tillerson are when it comes to Russia, when it comes to Ukraine,” said Jim Townsend, a former senior Pentagon official for Europe and NATO policy. “What will be [Volker’s] marching orders? What is he supposed to do?”
Volker has close ties to Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a hawkish Senate heavyweight who hasn’t backed down from clashing with Trump on foreign policy and defense issues. Volker is currently the executive director of Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership, named after the senator and his family.
Volker’s appointment could also signal growing U.S. cooperation with Germany after months of chilliness. Several diplomatic sources tell Foreign Policy German Chancellor Angela Merkel asked Trump to appoint a special envoy for Ukraine during her visit to Washington in March. While Berlin and Washington butt heads over trade and climate change, it at least appears Merkel’s wish was granted on Ukraine.
Germany and France have unwillingly replaced the United States in the driver’s seat when it comes to ending the Ukraine conflict. Merkel and her French counterpart championed the Minsk accords in 2015 with Ukraine, Russia, and Russian-backed Ukrainian forces to bring about a ceasefire.
While the deal is a stepping-stone for long-term peace and the basis of EU sanctions on Russia, it’s hanging by a thread. Herbst said there are 70 to 80 ceasefire violations a day on the frontlines of the conflict, mostly by the Russian-backed separatists. The conflict in Ukraine has killed 10,000 and displaced some 2 million since it first began in 2014.
Tillerson’s new Ukraine envoy could breathe some much-needed life back into the drive for peace, whose momentum has slowed in recent years.
“Unfortunately, there is some ‘Ukraine fatigue’ in Europe right now. It has become accepted as a background condition in European security,” said Tobias Bunde, a European security expert at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin. “Berlin would be quite happy if the United States would bring its power back to the negotiating table,” he said.
Volker will be the first U.S. special representative to Ukraine who holds that position exclusively. Under former President Barack Obama, then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland held the special envoy role. Volker is expected to deal primarily with Vladislav Surkov, one of Putin’s closest advisors, in his new role.
And he could be thrown into the deep end right from the beginning. He’s expected to travel with Tillerson to Kiev on July 9 as the secretary of state meets with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and members of Ukrainian civil society.
What’s more, his appointment comes after Tillerson repeatedly insisted he wouldn’t appoint any new special envoys until finishing a review of the State Department’s organization. Current and former State Department officials tell Foreign Policy there’s been a proliferation of special envoys in recent years that duplicate the department’s efforts and suck power from the regional bureaus.
While Volker navigates the maze of peacemaking on Ukraine, he’ll also have to walk the tight-rope of Russia politics in Washington as the Trump administration struggles to shrug off its scandals and multiple investigations into its ties to the Kremlin.
In that sense, Volker will be a rare breed in the Trump administration, understanding how power works in the capital.
“There aren’t many [Trump] appointees that know how to ‘play the piano’ of Washington. But Kurt knows how to play the piano,” Townsend told FP.
Volker served as U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2008 to 2009 under both former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Prior to that, he served in a variety of roles at the State Department and National Security Council.
He’s come out as a hawk against Russia and advocated in the past for sending Kiev lethal aid, something the last administration shied away from. That could soothe Washington’s European allies, who worried in the early days of the Trump presidency he could sell European security guarantees and support for Kiev down the river for some form of grand bargain with Putin.
“[Volker’s] appointment is reassuring,” said Bunde. “He won’t be the guy who hands over eastern Ukraine to Russia.”
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