KYIV -- The United States has tapped its former U.S. ambassador to NATO as a special envoy to negotiate over the fate of war-racked Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on July 7 announced that Kurt Volker, who served as Washington’s NATO ambassador under the previous two U.S. administrations, will “take responsibility for advancing U.S. efforts to achieve the objectives” of a peace deal known as the Minsk agreements, which has yet to stop hostilities.
"Kurt's wealth of experience makes him uniquely qualified to move this conflict in the direction of peace," Tillerson said in a statement. "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."
A pooled media report on July 7 also quoted State Department official R.C. Hammond as saying that Volker “will coordinate all State Department efforts to bring a resolution to the conflict created when Russia invaded Crimea and later eastern Ukraine.”
Volker’s appointment came shortly before U.S. President Donald Trump was to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin for highly anticipated bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.
That meeting was expected to address tensions between Moscow and Washington over Russia’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and continued backing of armed militants in eastern Ukraine.
Trump has said he wants to improve ties with Russia, though his administration so far has maintained the punitive measures targeting Russia for its actions in Ukraine that began under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.
The U.S. Senate, meanwhile, has tried to put itself in position to block efforts to ease Russia sanctions.
As special envoy, Volker is tasked with pushing for a solution to a conflict that is now in its fourth year. More than 10,000 people have been killed and nearly 2 million have been displaced by the fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists.
During the Obama administration, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland served in the envoy role that Volker is set to take over.
Volker is likely to be dealing directly with Vladislav Surkov, a longtime senior aide to Putin.
Volker is the executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership at Arizona State University, which says it is “guided by” the values that have “animated the career” of U.S. Senator John McCain -- a prominent foreign policy voice in Congress and a tireless critic of Putin.
The former NATO envoy has spoken critically about the government of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose ouster amid mass street protests in 2014 triggered a series of events that led to Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region and outbreak of war in eastern Ukraine.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko welcomed Volker’s appointment, saying in a July 7 tweet that it is an “important and timely move in the interests of ending Russian aggression and restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, including Crimea.”
The State Department said Volker would accompany Tillerson during his visit to Kyiv on July 9, when Tillerson will meet with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko and civil-society activists.
Poroshenko’s administration and the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv confirmed Poroshenko and Tillerson will deliver statements following their meeting.
A U.S. diplomat source told RFE/RL that Volker was expected to stay over until July 10 to meet with other Ukrainian officials.
With reporting by Reuters