DW: Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko stressed that Ukraine is moving towards gaining full NATO membership. How realistic is that?
Alexander Vershbow: The first thing Ukraine needs to do is to continue its defense reforms, its training and modernization programs so that it gets closer to meeting NATO standards. But in the longer term NATO has said many times that Ukraine can become a member one day if it meets the conditions and all the allies agree. So I think its more of a long-term question than a short-term question. But I believe allies agree that Ukraine's right to membership should not be compromised
Could the current partnership get even closer?
Debate is picking up on the question of expanding military support for Ukraine. US Defense Secretary James Mattis indicated that providing additional forms of assistance including lethal defensive weapons is under active consideration in Washington. I hope as a friend of Ukraine that the US will decide to lift former President Obama's ban on lethal defensive weapons in order to give Ukraine the means to defend itself. This would give more support to ambassador [Kurt] Volker in his efforts to achieve a negotiated solution. The Russians recognize that they are not going to be able to maintain the status-quo including their daily attacks on Ukrainian forces with impunity.
And what are the chances Ukraine will get these lethal weapons?
I think there is a real chance and it depends in part whether anything positive happens in the negotiations within the Minsk process. If Russia abandons it's obstructionist attitude towards the negotiations and begins to talk seriously about implementing "Minsk" [accords] then it may be not necessary to provide these weapons. But the US is signaling that continued stalemate in the negotiations could lead to the provision of lethal defensive weapons such as anti-tank weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces.
Defense Secretary Mattis said that if the US decides to supply Ukraine with lethal weapons it wouldn't be a provocative step towards Russia. Do you agree?
I think Moscow will criticize the decision quite vehemently in their propaganda because they enjoy the one-sided advantage that they now have, which is the ability to attack Ukrainian forces using their rockets and artillery systems with impunity. But I think ultimately the provision of lethal defensive weapons will improve the chances of a negotiated solution. These weapons are not meant to enable Ukraine to fight to a military victory. They are leveling the playing field to improve the chances for a negotiated solution in accordance with the Minsk agreements.
Do President Donald Trump's relations with Russia somehow influence his administration's policies on Ukraine?
I would say that despite the president's interest in a warmer relationship with Russia he has taken a lot of positive steps to help Ukraine. He met with [Ukrainian] President [Petro] Poroshenko before he met with [Russian] President [Vladimir] Putin. He has maintained the sanctions and signed the recent legislation, indicating to Russia that it can not hope to get the sanctions lifted without meeting the conditions for which those sanctions were imposed – namely the implementation of the Minsk agreements. And I think the appointment of ambassador [Kurt] Volker as a special envoy for the negotiations indicated the US commitments to achieve the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty over the Donbass and in the longer term of Crimea. So I think some of the worst fears about president Trump making a deal with Putin behind the backs of Ukrainian have not been fulfilled.
What are the chances of achieving sustainable peace in the eastern Ukraine?
All participants recognize that talks have not produced any results for more than two years and something needs to be done to give more impetus to the process. I think Russia was hoping that with election of Donald Trump it might be able to get its maximum objectives without paying any price. But Russia now recognizes that sanctions will continue and its international political isolation will continue if it does not negotiate more seriously in the Minsk process. The first step, of course, must be ending the daily attacks by Russian forces and their proxies on Ukrainian forces.
Read more: NATO representative 'We support Ukraine every day'
Do you think Russia is playing a zero-sum game in Ukraine?
Perhaps.. If Russia believes it can only be secure when Ukraine is unstable and insecure then the chances of achieving a negotiated solution are slim. But if the West remains united in support of Ukraine, if the pressure on Russia is maintained and increased if necessary both on the ground and through sanctions, Russia may have to recalculate what its long-term interests are in relation to Ukraine. So I'm somewhat encouraged, particularly by what the US has being doing on the diplomatic side and by the message sent by Defense Secretary Mattis' presence in Kiev on Ukrainian independence day.
The interview was conducted by Maksym Sydorzhevskyi and Dmytro Kaniewski.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis has called Russia an international menace during a visit to Kyiv. He also discussed expanding the US's support for Ukraine's government in its fight against rebels.
US Defense Secretary James Mattis called Russia an international menace during a visit to Kyiv on Thursday [24Aug2017] and said the United States would not accept the annexation of Crimea. But he stopped short of promising lethal arms.
Mattis was in the capital to celebrate Ukraine's Independence Day and discuss the government's ongoing conflict with separatists backed by Russia.
"Have no doubt ... the United States stands with Ukraine," Mattis said at a news conference with President Petro Poroshenko.
"Despite Russia's denials, we know they are seeking to redraw international borders by force," Mattis said. He added that such maneuvers would undermine sovereign European nations and stir tension.
Ahead of the visit, Poroshenko and his defense minister, Stepan Poltorak, had expressed optimism that the United States would provide government forces with new weapons to help in their fight against rebels who have occupied large parts of eastern Ukraine.
In particular, Ukraine was hoping that Mattis would offer lethal weaponry such as anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons to push back against the well-armed separatists.
Standing next to Poroshenko on Thursday, Mattis said the US was committed to helping Ukraine build and modernize its forces -- but he made no mention of providing lethal arms.
"From the first day of the Russian aggression, we appealed to all countries of the world to help us in the form of lethal weapons," Poltorak had told journalists in Kyiv on Wednesday. "Only Lithuania has given us such help so far."
"We continue to wait and are ready to receive lethal weapons," Poltorak said. "But it's not our decision: It's that of our partner countries. We very much hope for such support."
'No decisions made'
The US military has supported the idea of providing government forces with "defensive" weapons, but President Donald Trump is yet to sign off on the deal, expressing fears that it could escalate the conflict.
On Wednesday [20Aug2017] the US State Department announced that it was still considering the idea.
"In terms of the weapons program, there have been no decisions made," spokesperson Heather Nauert said in response to questions. "We"re not going to rule it in; we’re not going to rule that out right now."
US Vice President Mike Pence recently visited eastern European allies to pledge support as Russia's military maneuvers continue. As part of that tour Pence said he was considering deploying Patriot surface-to-air missiles, a move welcomed by the Baltic states.
A Hitler comparison
In a fiery Independence Day speech on Thursday, Poroshenko denounced Russia as an occupier and compared the country to Nazi Germany.
"With particular pain we remember the heroes of Ilovaisk," Poroshenko said, referencing a battle three years ago in Donetsk. "They were insidiously attacked by regular units of the Russian army that invaded our land without declaring war -- as Hitler once did."
[W.Z. True. But for Ukraine's Independence Day celebrations, 24Aug2014, Mr. Poroshenko organized a military parade to show off Ukraine's military might, instead of sending reinforcements and military equipment to his beleagured troops, who were being massacred in Ilovaisk. Worse. As the Panama Papers later revealed, Mr. Poroshenko was in the midst of transfering control of his Roshen assets out of Ukraine to off-shore tax havens. An act of treason, in my opinion.]
Poroshenko said there were more than 3,000 Russian troops on Ukrainian soil and blamed the Kremlin for the deaths of the over 10,000 people killed in the conflict.
"Do not ever forget nor forgive," Poroshenko said.
The defense ministers of Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Montenegro, Moldova and Georgia were also in Kyiv for the 26th anniversary of Ukraine's independence from the Soviet Union.
However, celebrations in the capital were marred after two people were injured in an explosion near the Ukrainian parliament. Police said the blast was likely set off by hooligans.
Separatists in eastern Ukraine have announced that a fresh ceasefire would come into force on Friday as the new school year begins.
The truce -- negotiated at a meeting of the Contact Group for Ukraine, made up of representatives from Kyiv, Moscow and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) -- would extend an existing ceasefire.
In a statement released on Thursday, the OSCE, which has a monitoring mission in eastern Ukraine, welcomed "the recommitment to ceasefire," calling it "an encouraging joint, political signal from all signatories" to the peace plan.
No end date for the ceasefire was given.
aw/mkg (dpa, AFP)
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and US Secretary of State Tillerson have met for lengthy talks amidst rising tensions between the two nations. Their meeting follows fresh US sanctions and Russia's US diplomat expulsion.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Sunday that despite tensions with Washington, he believed his US colleagues were prepared to keep communication lines open with Moscow.
"We felt the readiness of our US colleagues to continue dialogue. I think there's no alternative to that," Lavrov told reporters after what he said was a lengthy meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson (above photo).
Lavrov said his US counterpart asked him extensively about Russia's decision to expel US diplomats in retaliation for Washington's latest round of economic sanctions on Moscow.
"He was primarily interested ... in details of those decisions that we grudgingly made in response to the law on anti-Russian sanctions," Lavrov said. He said he shared with Tillerson how Russia planned to carry out the expulsions but didn't provide details to reporters.
Tillerson emerged from the meeting an hour after it started without taking questions or giving remarks to reporters.
Ukraine talks expected soon
In addition to discussing issues with North Korea and cooperation on cybercrime, Lavrov said Moscow and Washington's envoys were set to discuss Ukraine.
US President Donald Trump's special representative for Ukraine negotiations will soon make his first visit to Moscow to discuss the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
Lavrov also said that Tillerson agreed to resume talks between US Undersecretary of State Thomas Shannon and Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov. The channel of communication was initially created to discuss hot spots, but it was suspended after the US imposed tighter sanctions on Russia.
On Thursday, Trump reluctantly signed into law sanctions that target the Russian energy sector and place new limits on US investment in Russian companies.
Lawmakers in Congress passed the bill as a response to Russia's alleged interference in the 2016 presidential election, its involvement in the Syrian conflict and its annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.
Russia said the sanctions amounted to a full economic war and ordered Washington to cut 755 of its 1,200 embassy and consulate staff in Russia. They also seized two US diplomatic properties.
There has been some confusion regarding the cuts as the US is believed to have far fewer than 755 American employees working in the country.
Russia has repeatedly rejected allegations that it interfered in the US election while Trump has denied any collusion with Moscow.
rs/tj (AP, AFP, Reuters)