Over the past five years, nearly 13,000 people were killed in Donbas and 40,000 were injured in hostilities, according to U.S. State Department Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker who spoke at a hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"We are deeply concerned about the ongoing five-year old conflict in eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, the fighting continues unabated, and Ukrainian soldiers are still being killed nearly every week. The conflict is a humanitarian tragedy for the residents of the Donbas, with around 13,000 people killed, 40,000 injured, millions displaced, and untold damage to civilian infrastructure," said Volker.
"In short, Russia has created one of the worst humanitarian crises in Europe since the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. This suffering is a direct result of Russia’s aggression and will end only when Russia withdraws its military and security forces from Ukraine, and implements the Minsk agreements – which remain the best vehicle for achieving peace through the reintegration of the currently Russia-controlled areas in the east. Russia, however, remains the primary obstacle to implementing the Minsk agreements. Ukraine has done what it can to implement the agreements," the diplomat said.
He noted that Russia continues to "prop up its puppet regimes, the so-called “People's Republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk that have no place under the Minsk agreements or Ukraine’s constitutional order.
"Russia continues to lead and support the fighting, and has yet to implement a ceasefire or withdraw its forces from eastern Ukraine," said Kurt Volker.
He said the U.S. continues "close cooperation" with the Ukrainian government, our European Allies, and international organizations to address the humanitarian suffering. The United States has provided and will continue to provide support to protect and assist conflict-affected Ukrainians in Donbas, said the Ambassador, including mental health and psychosocial support, legal aid, and critical infrastructure repair.
The best step that could be taken to end this "artificial conflict" would be for Russia to "get out" of eastern Ukraine, the U.S. official stressed, adding that, in addition to bilateral efforts, Washington supports the French and German efforts in the Normandy Quartet and the work of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in the Trilateral Contact Group, and we coordinate closely to ensure our bilateral efforts and negotiations complement these efforts.
"Unfortunately, Russia has been stalling and uninterested in progress for the past 18 months. The election of President Zelenskyy creates a good opportunity to re-energize efforts to end the five-year old conflict in the Donbas. President Zelenskyy has repeatedly reiterated his commitment to peace and to the Minsk agreements, to seek to ease the suffering of the people in the Donbas, and has expressed an openness to creative approaches to break the deadlock. During this critical period, it is vital that the United States continue to support Ukraine and work closely with the new president on his diplomatic initiatives," said Volker.
The official added that he was willing to meet with the Russian side to discuss a way forward, "if Russia is serious about making progress."
"I told the Russians that a good first step would be for Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and vessels it seized during its unjustified attack near the Kerch Strait, which would be in keeping with the recent provisional order of the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea," Volker told the hearing.
While the U.S. is open to supporting initial confidence-building steps, it is also focused on the central elements of Minsk implementation, starting with the ceasefire, withdrawal of foreign forces, the disarming of the illegal armed groups, and creating a situation of security in the Donbas "so that additional political steps that are also part of Minsk can be taken."
"These include amnesty for people who’ve committed crimes as part of the conflict, implementing a so-called special status for the region under Ukraine’s constitution, and holding local elections, resulting in the peaceful reintegration of this territory with the rest of Ukraine," the diplomat reported.
"We hope that Russia will finally choose peace and work with us to end the fighting. In the meantime, it is important to continue to strengthen Ukraine and increase its resilience to better withstand Russian aggression and to support ongoing reforms to integrate Ukraine more closely with the West. We will continue to support the work of the OSCE Special Monitoring Mission, which serves as the world’s “eyes and ears” for the conflict in eastern Ukraine and now includes approximately 800 monitors and 420 local staff operating under extremely challenging political and security conditions. We are working with Ukraine on its reform agenda and creating an open, competitive economy that creates opportunity for its people. A democratic, free, and prosperous Ukraine creates a stark contrast with those living in a second-rate police state in the Russia-controlled Donbas," Volker concluded.