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Kurt Volker: It would be smart to have an air defense dome over everything from Mykolaiv to Romania

Kurt Volker: It would be smart to have an air defense dome over everything from Mykolaiv to Romania Kurt Volker (Photo: RBC-Ukraine)

American diplomat and former US Special Representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker discusses in an interview with RBC-Ukraine whether the American Congress will adopt a new aid package for Ukraine, attacks on Russian oil refineries, and French President Emmanuel Macron's idea of possible French troop deployment to Ukraine.

Kurt Volker is well-known in Ukraine. Between 2017 and 2019, he worked as the US Special Representative for Ukraine, focusing on peace negotiations in the Donbas region. Since the full-scale Russian invasion started, Volker has regularly visited Ukraine and commented on the war in leading Western media.

RBC-Ukraine caught up with Volker during the Cipher Brief's Kyiv Economic and Security Forum held in the Ukrainian capital last week. The main topic of discussion was obviously a multi-billion-dollar American aid package to Ukraine, which has been stalled in Congress for several months. Volker remains optimistic about it, believing that the aid package will eventually be voted on, possibly as early as April.

However, Volker believes that the financial and economic part of the package will be provided as a loan—a concept actively promoted by Republicans in recent weeks. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also publicly expressed readiness to accept such an option days ago. The pause in receiving US aid has become critical, and Ukraine is now agreeing to any format of assistance.

What is your forecast about voting for the supplemental in April or maybe will the aid to Ukraine be approved in another form? And what do you think about this GOP idea of providing aid to Ukraine in the form of loans, not grants?

I believe that the supplemental aid for Ukraine will be 61 billion. And I believe it will be approved this month.

I've been wrong before. I'm prepared to be wrong again. But you may remember, I was here in Kyiv in May last year, and I was asked about the administration's request for 15 billion and I said no, it's going to be 60 and it's because nobody wants to vote on this twice. We want to get it done and then have our presidential election. It is going to be 60 billion and it will be only one time and then we'll have a presidential election.

The reason is the basic math. 80% of the members of the House, Republican and Democrat, support aid to Ukraine. They want to see it go through. You bring it to the floor of the House you'll get between three hundred and three hundred fifty votes.

More than enough. Way more.

Way more. So you do have a very small minority of Republicans who oppose aid to Ukraine.

But loud.

Very loud, but very small. And even smaller than that is the number of congressmen who would be willing to bring down the Speaker of the House over a vote on Ukraine. So Marjorie Taylor Greene, maybe one other, maybe not. The math does not add up that this is going to block the aid to Ukraine.

Now the Speaker of the House last weekend put out three ideas of what he would like to do in approving aid to Ukraine. One of them was to add in the idea of seizing Russian assets that are now frozen. This is a good idea.

A second one was removing the restrictions on US LNG exports, which would reduce commercial energy prices and compete with Russian gas. This is also a good idea. And the third one was making some of the assistance to be provided to Ukraine in the form of loans rather than all grants. I hate to see Ukraine saddled with debt as it emerges from a war. It's going to have a lot of needs anyway. On the other hand, if you're an American taxpayer, the money that is being given to Ukraine is money that we're borrowing anyway. We don't have it in our budget either.

So I don't think it is unreasonable, if we're talking about Ukraine's budget, to help Ukraine pay salaries and healthcare and so forth. It's not unreasonable to make that a loan. And in fact, what I would like to see is the 61 billion approved, even if it's a combination: a 45 billion grant, and a 16 billion loan.

So will it be another bill? So technically the Senate will have to vote for it too, is that correct?

It would be an amendment to the Senate bill (voted in February - ed.). It's the first draft, and then the House would amend it, and then it would go back to the Senate, and then once there's a common text, then the President signs, that's the procedure. But I think you'll have 45 billion military aid as a grant, 16 billion economic assistance as a loan, that's great, that's fine. But then what I would also like to see is new legislation to authorize lend-lease. Because that should be hundreds of billions available to Ukraine to borrow at Ukraine's discretion.

We never used it. It expired October 31st, 2023. It could be reintroduced, it could be reauthorized, and I think it would be a very smart idea in addition to the assistance package and the supplemental.

Kurt Volker: It would be smart to have an air defense dome over everything from Mykolaiv to Romania

Kurt Volker (Photo: RBC-Ukraine)

Financial Times reported that Washington had asked Kyiv to stop attacks on Russian oil refinery factories and President Zelenskyy also confirmed that the Americans were not very happy about these attacks. What do you think of it?

I fundamentally disagree with that position. Of course, I'm a private citizen, I'm not representing the US government. But my view is that that is fundamentally wrong, and people need to realize that there's a war going on. Every day Russia is attacking Ukrainian energy facilities, they're attacking Kharkiv, they're attacking civilians, they're attacking everything. And to suggest that Ukraine should not be fighting back against things that are empowering Russia's military capability, I find it inexplicable that we would suggest this.

Of course, Ukraine should be knocking out these refineries. And mostly what they are doing is taking out refineries that take crude oil and turn it into refined products such as aviation fuel for example which which Russian fighter jets and bombers use. Of course, we should knock this out. And also it's very important that Russia not have a cost-free war. Putin gets away with it in terms of the population in Russia believing that this is a just cause and believing that it is a 'special military operation to get rid of Nazis' because there's no pain inside Russia.

So it's important that Russians see that their own military infrastructure is at risk by doing this. So I think not only should Ukraine continue taking out refineries, they should also be attacking any military infrastructure inside Russia, particularly that is being used to attack Ukraine. So airfields, logistical supply points, ammunition depots, all of that are military targets, it is legitimate.

What Ukraine should not do is what Russia does: attack civilian houses, schools, hospitals. No, nobody should do that, and Russia should not do that either. But military targets – absolutely ok.

Do you think that Ukraine anyway, even after this supplementary package is approved in this or that form, will be in top 3 or top 5 issues of the presidential campaign in the US?

I don't think so, and I hope it isn't. The number one issue for everybody in the country is the economy. We had a strong period of inflation which has created a higher price level. Everybody still feels it. Economy is number one. Immigration is number two. We have an uncontrolled southern border. Thousands of people walk into the country every day. We have no idea who they are. This is a problem and that's the number two issue for voters.

Then it breaks down, Republicans have other issues that they care about, Republicans are trying to mobilize against a very aggressive agenda on social issues. So particularly transgender people in sports, LGBTQ things in schools, parental choice, all sorts of things on that social agenda.


Well, that's the Democrat issue. Democrats are trying to use abortion, saying Republicans are restricting abortion, let's mobilize Democratic voters to come out and vote against it.

Neither one of the parties is really mobilizing around foreign policy. It may be a topic, but I don't think it's going to be a main topic.

What is your opinion on French President Macron's ideas about sending troops here and also creating the so-called 'strategic ambiguity'?

Macron is absolutely right. We should not take things off the table and announce that we're taking things off the table.

The stronger signal to Putin was the immediate and firm rejection of this by Germany and the US. That's what Putin heard. Okay, lack of resolve, lack of commitment from the West. All Macron was saying is we shouldn't rule anything out, we shouldn't rule out ground troops. And I completely agree, we should not rule it out. That doesn't mean we should do it now either. That's not what he's saying. Don't take it off the table.

And then there is an idea that has been floated separately from Macron's remarks, which is the idea of direct participation in Ukraine's air defense. We provide the weapons and ammunition for Ukraine's air defenses, but the reality is that NATO countries are bordering Ukraine, Poland, Slovakia, Romania, in Hungary, and we've had already instances of missiles going over Polish airspace. And these missiles and drones are aimed at civilians. So, it is perfectly reasonable for NATO countries to begin thinking about helping to take down these missiles and rockets and drones that are attacking civilians as a humanitarian gesture and as an extension of NATO's air defenses because they are actually a risk to NATO as well.

No reason why NATO shouldn't consider that and it could either be with air defense units in NATO countries, or it could be air defense units in strategic points in Ukraine. I would think it would be smart to have an air defense dome over everything from Mykolaiv to Romania. That would be very good for the security of transportation, very good for the security of civilians, for the security of shipping.

If you had a small contingent of troops, maybe, French that were air defense forces and would be able to protect the sky – I don't see anything wrong with that.

And will they be the ones who 'push the button' and launch the air defense missile?

You could do it that way or you could bring your troops, bring your equipment, sit there with Ukrainians, do all the targeting… These are details. The point is we could be participating much more directly in helping protect civilians than we are.