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US envoy calls Russian activities in eastern Ukraine an ‘occupation’

Russian President Vladimir Putin during an interview in July 2018. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

The U.S. special envoy on Ukraine has called Russian activity in eastern Ukraine an “occupation” and has called on Moscow to start implementing its obligations under the 2015 Minsk accords — the international agreement aimed at ending the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian government forces and Russia-backed separatists.

U.S. State Department Special Representative Kurt Volker made the remarks on May 28 while speaking to journalists about the prospects for Ukraine’s future under newly elected President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

“Russia has a lot that it needs to do to implement the Minsk agreements,” Volker told journalists via a video link from Washington. “Ukraine also has its responsibilities.”

The U.S. envoy said the United States now needs to see “where we stand and whether we can make progress” in talks with Russia following the April 21 Ukrainian presidential runoff vote that brought Zelenskiy to power.

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“So far in contacts we had earlier this year, the Russians made clear that they did not see an opportunity for productive discussions during the course of the presidential campaign” in Ukraine, Volker said.

With Ukraine now preparing for early parliamentary elections in July, Volker said it remains unclear whether progress can be made yet in talks with Russia.

“We will have to see how it stands now, during the course of this parliamentary campaign, and when an appropriate time would be to meet [with Russian officials] and follow up,” Volker said.

“We want to make sure that we are putting on the table all of the issues about Minsk implementation, starting with a cease-fire, withdrawal of foreign forces, the disarming of illegal armed groups, and creating a situation of security in Donbas so that additional political steps that are also part of Minsk can be taken,” he added.

“These include amnesty for people who have committed crimes as part of the conflict, implementing a special status for the region under Ukraine’s constitution, holding elections, and — of course, eventually — the peaceful reintegration of this territory with the rest of Ukraine,” Volker said. “Those are the topics to discuss.”

‘Provocative Step’

Volker criticized a decree issued in April by Russian President Vladimir Putin that aims to simplify the procedure to obtain Russian citizenship for people living in parts of eastern Ukraine held by Russia-backed separatists.

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“That is a very provocative step for Russia to take to go forward and say: ‘We will give Russian passports to the citizens of another country,'” Volker said.

“That being said, I don’t think Ukrainians are going to be rushing to take up these passports,” he added. “They are suffering a lot under Russia’s occupation in Donbas as it is. And we also will be looking at whether we are in a position to identify and not recognize those passports — as we do in the case of passports issued in Crimea already.”

Volker has previously called Russia’s takeover of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula “an illegal occupation” and “an illegal seizure of territory,” saying Washington stands behind Ukraine “in insisting that its territorial integrity be restored.”

Volker also criticized Moscow’s defiance of a UN maritime court ruling that Russia must immediately release 24 Ukrainian sailors who were seized by Russia’s military in November near the Kerch Strait bridge that connects Russia to Ukraine’s Russian-occupied Crimean Peninsula.

Sailors ‘Attacked Illegally’

He rejected Russia’s claim that the Ukrainian Navy ships were in Russian territorial waters when Russian forces attacked them off the coast of Crimea and detained the Ukrainian sailors.

“There is no legal reason for Russia to continue to hold these sailors,” Volker said. “They were attacked illegally in international waters. They were taken illegally to Russia. They should be treated as members of a foreign government’s military forces. There is no basis to hold them inside Russia.”

“We do urge their immediate release,” he said. “The courts have also ruled in that direction. Russia has made clear it has no intention of doing that.”

“That being said, there is no force that is going to be applied to Russia to make them follow the rule of law and make them follow this court decision,” Volker said. “But it is our very clear position that they need to release these sailors.”

NATO Membership?

Asked whether Ukraine’s NATO membership bid could be revoked amid the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine, Volker said Washington continues to support Kyiv’s aspirations to join the alliance.

“I think it provides the wrong message to Russia that all it has to do is attack a country and that country can no longer be considered for NATO membership,” he said.

“We continue to support the commitment made in 2008 [at a NATO summit] in Bucharest that Ukraine will one day be a member of NATO,” he said, adding that he hopes Ukraine will be ready to do so “when NATO is again ready to look at further enlargement.”

Volker said that just as Washington had worked closely with Ukraine’s previous president, Petro Poroshenko, the U.S. administration intends “to work very closely with President Zelenskiy and his team on furthering that same agenda of reform and progress and development of Ukraine.”