U.S. Senator Dick Durbin met with members of the Ukrainian community in Chicago Thursday to discuss his recent participation in an Aspen Institute conference on the conflict in Ukraine. The conference, which took place in Berlin, was attended by a large delegation of American policy makers, including six senators and nine members of the House of Representatives, who discussed the standing of the Minsk II ceasefire with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and representatives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Minsk II ceasefire was signed in February by members of the Normandy Four, a coalition of the heads of state of Ukraine, Russia, France, and Germany. The ceasefire was implemented to replace a previous Minsk agreement from September, which was considered to have failed as Russian-backed rebels invaded Debaltseve, an important Eastern Ukrainian transportation hub, in January. While the United States has taken a back seat to the European Union in negotiating peace for Ukraine, Sen. Durbin and the Senate Ukraine Caucus which he leads are still very much invested in ending the conflict.
According to what he learned at the Aspen Institute, Sen. Durbin said that Minsk II was “nominally in place,” at best, and non-existent at worst, “because people are still dying, and many people are still being displaced.” He considers it a fatal flaw to include Russia unless it admitted to instigating the conflict.
“We are watching the Russians very carefully and closely to see if they go so far as to literally end the ceasefire,” said Sen. Durbin. For him personally, Minsk II would be considered to have failed if Mariupol, an Eastern Ukrainian port city, falls from Ukrainian government control. Sen. Durbin also fears that Russia will shed its persona of non-involvement in the conflict, and begin an outright invasion of Ukraine. In which case, the senator said, “he could have his armies in Kyiv in a week.”
Sen. Durbin also says that American reconnaissance, from satellites and aerial photography, suggests that Russia is preparing for that very scenario. With one of the largest militaries in the world, he called Russia, “a force for any country to reckon with.”
“We are very skeptical of Moscow, of Putin, and what his goals are,” said Sen. Durbin. “Our fear is that Putin, once getting a foothold in Ukraine, is going to invade other countries. Moldova is a country that would be very easy to strike. Then the question is if he would go into a NATO country.”
Ukraine’s Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk also met with the American Congressional delegation in Berlin to further discuss more effective diplomatic means to ending the conflict in Ukraine.
“He’s hoping that the ceasefire will hold. He’s hoping that we’ll get to have a diplomatic discussion about how to end the violence,” said Sen. Durbin of the prime minister. “But he’s still very concerned, and he’s looking for support from the West.”
Sen. Durbin believes that the United States should provide Ukraine with defensive weaponry, in addition to expanding U.S. humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Sen. Durbin says he agrees with his Republican colleagues, like Sen. John McCain and Sen. Mark Kirk, that the United States has to allow the capability for Ukraine to properly defend itself.
While the decision to grant Ukraine weaponry has not yet been made, and is largely being met with resistance from the White House, Sen. Durbin said they are taking recommendations from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs as to what weapon systems might be most appropriate to send to Ukraine.
According to the senator, six out of the seven systems that are being considered for Ukraine are defensive in nature, including reconnaissance drones and tracing missiles that can automatically and precisely fire on where an enemy rocket originated.
“The Ukrainians simply don’t have that kind of precision,” said Sen. Durbin.
He clarified that the defensive systems would only be given to Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense, and not any of the volunteer battalions fighting alongside them. He suggested that modern, intelligent weapons systems can be programmed to only work when operated by the Ukrainian government.
Sen. Durbin will be convening a meeting with the Senate Ukraine Caucus next week to formally request weapons systems from the White House.