Between Syria and Iran, NATO and the European Union, the agenda will be crowded next week in Helsinki when President Donald Trump sits down with Vladimir Putin of Russia. So crowded that the war in eastern Ukraine may end up getting brushed aside, just one among many bargaining chips that Trump and Putin could put on the table.
That would not sit well with Kurt Volker, the U.S. diplomat responsible for negotiating an end to that war. But it wouldn’t entirely surprise him. “Many people have convinced themselves that, Oh, it’s just a frozen conflict, when it’s really not,” Volker says. “There’s literally fighting every night. There’s shells, mortars, snipers, people getting killed.”
Since Trump appointed him to the post of special representative to Ukraine a year ago, Volker has gotten closer to the fighting in eastern Ukraine than any senior U.S. diplomat, close enough to see the bombed out villages through the window of his armored car.
The seasoned diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to NATO has no illusions about the reasons for the slaughter, which began after a revolution in Ukraine brought a pro-Western government to power in Kiev. Putin responded by sending Russian troops and paramilitaries to occupy large portions of the country, including its industrial rust belt in the east. The resulting conflict has since killed over 10,000 people, more than a quarter of them civilians, according to U.N. estimates. It has also displaced about 1.5 million, more than any other conflict in Europe since World War II.
These numbers, which Volker highlighted at a briefing with TIME and several other news outlets on Thursday in Berlin, are difficult to square with some of the rhetoric coming out of the White House. As Trump gets ready to meet with Putin in Helsinki on July 16, he has declined to rule out the possibility that the U.S. may recognize the Russian annexation of Crimea, the first part of Ukraine that Russia seized in the spring of 2014. “We’re going to have to see,” Trump told reporters when asked whether he was considering such a step.
That pronouncement, as well as the broader demotion of Ukraine toward the bottom of Trump’s international agenda, has been especially galling for the Ukrainian government, whose leaders have tried with an insistence bordering on desperation to maintain some hold over the world’s attention. During a summit of world leaders held in Munich in February, President Petro Poroshenko used his time on stage to paint Russia as an “evil” occupier and to appeal for support from the U.S. and Europe.
But the seats of the hall in front of him had mostly emptied out before he took the podium. Poroshenko held up a flag of the European Union, which had once flown, he said, atop one of Ukraine’s front-line positions. “Everything the Russian world touches turns to ruin and decay,” he told a thin crowd of reporters and diplomatic staff.
The next day, when the President invited TIME for a brief chat in his suite at the conference venue, he looked exhausted after two days of meetings with U.S. and European officials, the most important of which was cancelled at the last minute at the request of the German foreign ministry. “Please be my guest in Ukraine,” Poroshenko said as he shook my hand. “Maybe go to the [front] line and see with your own eyes what’s going on there. I can organize it for you, because I’m very much interested in that.”
Similar invitations have been extended to many Western officials and diplomats in recent months. But the only one to accept it from the Trump Administration has been Volker, who visited the war zone in the middle of May. It seemed to leave a deep impression. As so many of the region’s men have been drafted or volunteered to fight, Volker spent much of his time talking to the women who stayed behind to “hold the property together,” he said.
One of them lives in a part of Ukraine that’s been designated as the Red Zone, where road blocks and military positions, along with mines and unexploded ordinance, have made it extremely hard for civilians to get food, medicine and other basic supplies. “It’s been four years of this,” says Volker. “And as this goes on and on and on, more and more things break down.”
With all the suffering the conflict continues to cause, it seems surprising to Volker how little attention it gets outside the region. He often thinks of it in contrast to the time he spent in the 1990s negotiating an end to the war in Bosnia. “It was seizing European headlines every day. People were outraged,” he recalls. The leaders of the U.S., U.K., France and Germany also devoted a great deal of time to those negotiations, and Bill Clinton, who was then the U.S. President, hosted the summit in Dayton, Ohio, which finally brought peace to Bosnia in 1995.
Today the American role in Ukraine feels very different. In his public remarks, Trump has avoided criticizing Putin for ordering his troops into Ukraine. Instead he has blamed the conflict on his predecessor, Barack Obama, while suggesting that the issue should be set aside in the interest of better relations with Russia.
As an initial step, Trump has called for Russia to be admitted back into the G7 club of industrialised nations, whose leaders kicked Russia out precisely because of its attacks against Ukraine. “Something happened a while ago where Russia is no longer in,” Trump said during the group’s summit last month in Canada. “I think it would be an asset to have Russia back in.”
That phrase — “something happened a while ago” — was Trump’s way of describing a war that has killed thousands of civilians and redrawn the borders of eastern Europe. Still, Volker says there is a bright side for Ukraine, as the actions of the White House have not always been in line with the president’s rhetoric. Since Trump took office, his administration has lifted an arms embargo on Ukraine that was put in place under President Obama; it has also maintained, and in some ways strengthened, the sanctions imposed against Russia over Ukraine.
But none of that has brought the contested region much closer to peace. “Nothing has really moved in four years,” Volker says. “My impression now is that Russia has decided to dig in for a while and not try to solve this.” The conflict, if kept on a low boil, can be useful to Russia not only in draining the resources of Ukraine’s government, but in extracting concessions from the West. “I think it’s a tactic to create opportunities to exercise influence,” Volker says.
That tactic will be put to the test in Helsinki, and it may yet play out in Ukraine’s favor. In exchange for a concession on some other issue — the lifting of U.S. sanctions, for instance — Putin may agree to allow U.N.-mandated peacekeepers to help tame the fighting in eastern Ukraine. But given how little concern Trump has expressed for that conflict, the U.S. President may also decide to endorse Russia’s claim to the parts of Ukraine it has occupied.
Volker refuses to guess which way it will go. What he hopes for is a clear directive, rather than any mixed messages, about what diplomats like him should do in Ukraine. “A good outcome from Helsinki would be a tasking, a tasking from the leaders to say, ‘Make this happen. Get a ceasefire. Get a U.N. force in place that will genuinely create peace.’” It could happen that way. But for Russia it would mean giving up a powerful lever of influence, and Putin does not seem likely to trade it away for free.
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