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Volker: There's no clear goal from US — «we want Ukraine to defeat Russia»

What will it take to win the war? And how close is Ukraine to becoming self-sufficient in terms of weapons production? Kurt Volker, former U.S. Special Representative for Ukraine, and Liudmyla Dolhonovska, Chief of Staff at the American University, Kyiv delve into these questions in the new episode of Ukraine Calling.

Volker: There's no clear goal from US — «we want Ukraine to defeat Russia»
Estimated Reading Time: 22 minutes

War in Ukraine: opinions

Brian Bonner: You’ve been here long enough to detect nervousness probably [over the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass $60 billion in aid to Ukraine]. Do you still feel that [the package will be approved]?

Kurt Volker: I do. I am absolutely confident that this gets done. I was in Munich with Mike (Pompeo) and with Brian Fitzpatrick, and there were 14 senators in the Senate delegation. I spoke with Sheldon Whitehouse and Dan Sullivan, who were leading that delegation. Mike Turner was the head of the House delegation. He had about 17 congressmen. And I also followed this very closely in Washington.

When you have 80% of the Republicans and 80%, at least, of the Democrats in the House and the Senate all wanting to get something done, it’ll get done. The question is how and when which is tough. And the delays that we’ve seen are regrettable, but they’re not because of Ukraine. The delays are because of the southern border, which is the hottest political issue in the United States right now, and one where the two parties fundamentally disagree, at least disagree over methods of what to do about the southern border. 

So that’s held everything up. But I am very confident that as the House comes back after next weekend, both Brian has a plan for how it could advance. I think the Speaker has a plan or two for how it could advance, which is to attach H.R. 2 (border security bill – ed.) to the Senate bill. So you put immigration back on. I think Brian’s idea is you take the Senate package and reduce it, and then put it through as a stand-alone. That’s a matter of debate and conference after that.

Another option is this so-called petition to discharge. The petition to discharge is when 218 congressmen sign the same thing and say that they are demanding that the bill, already approved by the Senate, come to the floor of the House. And if they have 218 signatures, it obliges the Speaker to do it.

Brian Bonner: Do you agree that it’s just enough to keep them in the fight? What will it take to win this war? It’s going to take more than that.

Kurt Volker: I’ll tell you, this is the biggest frustration that I have. It will take the Biden administration deciding that they want Ukraine to win the war. Everything you hear is, we will stand with Ukraine as long as it takes. We’ll provide assistance. We’ll provide economic support. But you never hear the clear goal: ‘We want Ukraine to defeat Russian forces in Ukraine, period.’ Because if you had that clear goal, you wouldn’t put limits on the equipment.

You wouldn’t say, oh, well, you can have the HIMARS, but you can’t have the ATACMS. Say, well, you can train your pilots on F-16s, but we won’t give you any. You can get them from Denmark. We wouldn’t say, well, we have all these A-10s sitting in the desert, in Arizona, but you can’t have those because, well, they’re complicated. That would not be the attitude. The attitude would be, ‘tell the U.S. military, figure out what Ukraine needs to win the war, and then we’ll give it to them. Just do it.’ That’s what we should be doing.

Russia claims the territory of other countries. They view things that were once part of the Russian empire, Russian lands. They don’t view other peoples – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Georgians, whomever, as equal and legitimate. If you look at the methods that Russia is using in Ukraine, abduction of children, torture of people to intimidate, bombing of cities deliberately, trying to knock out civilian infrastructure. This is a kind of brutality that is horrific, combined with a vision, it’s truly a Hitlerian vision: ‘All of these things should be ours.’ That is dangerous, not only to Ukraine, but also to Europe and the United States because of our NATO treaty commitments. So we had better take this seriously.

Brian Bonner: Would you, under any circumstances, serve in a second Trump administration?

Kurt Volker: I’ll give you the same answer that Mike Pompeo routinely gives: If you are given the opportunity to serve and you can make a difference, then you can’t rule it out.

Brian Bonner: A manpower shortage, conscription. If I remember Vietnam right, we took 18-year-olds, right? This country is fighting for its survival. Does it really make sense to have the most able-bodied people from 18 to 27 sitting on the sidelines? Wouldn’t it be a better look if they conscripted 18-year-olds?

Kurt Volker: I can’t answer that. That’s a question for Ukrainian society. You are right, that’s what we did in our conscription. It was historically, that was the age, it was 18. It is different in Ukraine. I’m not able to comment. This is a choice for society. There is legislation in the Rada right now that they are looking at to change the mobilization process. I think the most important thing that can and probably will come out of new legislation is a sense of fairness.

Many Ukrainians feel that the conscription and mobilization systems that previously existed were operating unfairly. So, the Rada needs to create a system that people can trust and believe is fair.

Brian Bonner: I’m happy to be in this studio with Liudmyla Dolhonovska. She has a great bio. She is the chief of staff of American University in Kyiv. She is a strategic communications specialist. And she was the former advisor to strategic communications for the former commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, General Valerii Zaluzhnyi: 2021, before the start of the war, until 2023. Happy to have you here. Thanks for coming in, Liudmyla.

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: Thank you for inviting me. It’s an honor for me.

Brian Bonner: You saw the interview with Kurt Volker on the war. And that was done on February 23rd, which is the day of your first graduation ceremony. At that time, he was confident that the U.S. was going to approve the $60 billion in aid to Ukraine to keep fighting the war. And now we are a month later. Back then, Ukraine was stressed out. How stressed out are Ukrainians now, including yourself, about this continued blocking of assistance?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: I have to admit that we definitely are stressed out. That’s really upsetting. And we need this support, for sure. Our guys on the ground need it. We need weapons. We need ammunition every day. For us, every day is just huge expectations and big hopes for American politicians. The latest news about the $300 million support that the U.S. Congress is going to give us, it’s something which gives us hope, but definitely with how Russia is moving forward in its wartime economy and with their support from China and North Korea, Iran, it’s horrible that we don’t have the support from the West now in that amount, which will allow us to save the lives of our civilians and military and stop Russian invasion.

Brian Bonner: Yes, unfortunately, the $300 million is not going to go very far. Also, you’ve probably read the news. Supposedly, former President Donald Trump has told Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, his friend, that if he becomes president again, that he will not give any money. Trump will not give any money to Ukraine. Did you hear that?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: I did, but I am a specialist in strategic communications. So as soon as news appears, somebody wants them to be on the air. So that was spread deliberately with some intention. And we can anticipate what the goal was, to make us nervous, to make Europe divided, to spread all that concerns and doubts among their decision makers. First of all, I do really hope that their election campaign will be different from the true presidency if it happens.

This is a huge responsibility and it would be quite irresponsible not only to leave Ukrainian people without support, to betray us. It will be a huge mistake for the American people because the U.S. president can’t give a chance for Russia, China and other authoritarian regimes to prevail.

Brian Bonner: You’ve been inside the military. How close do you think Ukraine is to becoming self-sufficient in terms of weapons production and not having to rely so much on foreign aid?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: Again, I have to admit that we are not close, unfortunately, because this is a huge pressure on our economy. And the Ukrainian economy, even before the full-scale invasion, wasn’t so strong. We were quite dependent on Western support. And of course, with the full-scale war, we are even weaker, unfortunately. And we need this financial support just to exist, to support the financial level and just have some level of economy.

Military production is quite expensive, even in a peaceful time. Unfortunately, we don’t have such resources. We have people who know what to do. Unfortunately, we have the testing ground to test their whole weapon, ammunition, vehicles, etc. But we don’t have the capacity because of the financial situation. That is the number one reason.

The number two reason is the security situation. But as soon as any military production appears, it’s target number one for Russians. But we have great scientists and guys who can do that because of their dedication and their desire to support. And as American University, we are partnered with the business accelerator for the military tech industry. They have given them the educational part. They call it “MITS,” which is “power” in Ukrainian. So we definitely see hundreds of small producers, who are making drones, other equipment, weapons etc. So, we have huge potential for smart and dedicated people but of course, we need their support and security on our territory.

Brian Bonner: As a Ukrainian, I’m going to ask you, because you saw Kurt Volker dodge the question. It’s a hot issue now: not only are we short of weapons we’re short of manpower, soldiers at the front line. The big debate is, especially coming to a head in parliament, although parliament looks like it doesn’t want to make a decision. In many countries at war they start drafting men at age 18. We don’t force men into the military until the age of 27. As a Ukrainian, what do you think is the right age?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: It’s quite a complicated issue. We should find a balance. First of all, even though they can’t be conscripted obligatorily under the age of 27, they can join the armed forces as volunteers at 18. So they have this right. If they have enough motivation and desire to serve, they can do that. But the state doesn’t have the right to mobilize them to draft them.

Why am I talking about balance? Ukraine is a country that in its recent history was suffering a lot under being in the Soviet Union then in the Russian empire, participating in two world wars and being occupied by Nazi and then de-occupied by the Red Army. We suffered. We lost a lot of male population during the 20th century. And that’s a big trauma for future generations. And why I’m talking about balance – because we need to save people somehow, these young people, give them a chance to gain education to create some future.

Of course, somebody has to defend the country. So, that’s a big question. First, we need to create conditions that will allow them to serve like human beings with normal treatment, with everything equipped, trained, and prepared for their service. The other issue is, of course, to give them motivation and explain to them why they have to sacrifice their health, life, and youth to defend their country. It’s very hard.

I personally hope that the parliament will adopt this new law which will be fair to people. This will allow those who are in the trenches for two years to have their rotation now and younger people at least from 25 can join. I will support and I will be a huge supporter of creating the conditions for young people to join. They have to understand that this is also the career path for them, that they can get a degree in the armed forces. They will gain the skills and some traits of character, which will allow them to be more successful in their life. But of course, the number 1 task is to defend the country

Brian Bonner: You had one of the most fascinating jobs you know in strategic communications, working for General Zaluzhnyi, the most trusted and popular public figure in Ukraine. Do you take credit for that?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: I’m proud of that. I was doing my job with 100% dedication, and I couldn’t be more proud that we saw the results. It was not only my job there; it was first of all his character and leadership—I mean, General Zaluzhnyi’s leadership. And of course, the Ukrainian armed forces, who just stopped the Russian invasion. They proved to the whole world that we are capable and we can prevail over their so-called “second army of the world.”

Brian Bonner: I’m a little surprised, I don’t know if you were, about a lot of things. I mean about his leaving the military to become, apparently, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United Kingdom. Do you think you’ll make a good diplomat and do you think that he has a political future? Perhaps as the next president of Ukraine?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: He has to decide that and the Ukrainian people have to decide whether he has a political future or not. But regarding his success in the diplomatic role, I’m confident he will do this job with excellence, because he was excellent in everything. I’ve learned about his education. He has three military diplomas and a diploma in international relations from Ostroh Academy. All of them were completed with excellence, so he is quite a diligent and smart person for sure. There is no job he can’t do. He will be successful. But of course, as many Ukrainians, I want his experience here, with our military.

Why do we need the American University in Ukraine?

Brian Bonner: Why do we need an American University? What does it offer?

Kurt Volker: Ukrainians have always, from before the full-scale invasion and through it, had a demand for Western-style education. They know the old Soviet system. They know how it evolved in Ukraine after 30 years of independence. But it is still a state system, a different type of institution. A hunger for Western-style education. We had 60,000 Ukrainian students per year studying abroad before 2022. It’s probably more than that now, but that’s what you had before then.

So what we wanted to do was, ‘let’s bring Western-style education, approach and mentality to Ukraine and offer it at a far more affordable price.’ If you study in the United States and you pay out-of-state tuition fees, you could be paying 30, 40, or 50 thousand dollars a year. We are able to bring this to students in Ukraine at about $8,000 a year. And because of the war, we’ve offered some rebates on that.

So the one thing is to bring it here and make it more accessible for more Ukrainians. The other thing is that I think, as Ukrainians themselves know, there needs to be a “shedding” as a society of an old mentality and the adoption of a new modern Western mentality for Ukraine. People have told me anecdotes for example about corruption in education in Ukraine, where you could pay your teacher for your grade. You have to introduce integrity in education and introduce the mindset that paying for your grade is actually a failure for your country because they need you to know what you’re supposed to know. So, that’s another reason: updating the mindset.

And then the third is it builds relationships. People who come and study at the American University Kyiv are now developing relationships with Arizona State University, with American leadership in the university, and with faculty members. They have the chance to continue their education in Arizona and get an ASU degree, not just an American University Kyiv degree. If they finish up in Arizona they can get an ASU degree. So it’s opening up doors, opening up the horizons for students here in ways that they otherwise may not be able to do.

Brian Bonner: What’s the price thing in this, who gets the credit? You had a lot of public money and a lot of private money?

Kurt Volker: We’ve had all private money so far. We’ve had a number of investors who share the vision, just as I articulated to you. EPAM is a Fortune 500 company, owned by people who are originally from Ukraine and Belarus, but are now in the U.S. They do back office software. They have this idea. We have Wings & Freeman Capital, which is Tbilisi and Kyiv private equity and investment managers. They have worked on many projects with DFC, they helped create the Georgian American University in Tbilisi, they’ve worked with Sheraton, and they’ve worked with Marriott. They have taken part in helping to set this up.

We have DTEK academy, the training program for DTEK has been brought into the university as well. We have Brain, which is a mail-order distribution company in Georgia. BGV, which is the owner of the largest supermarket chain in Kyiv, was one of our earliest investors. So we’ve raised a lot of private capital to get the university off the ground and we are in the process now of talking with the U.S Development Finance Corporation, with the European Investment Bank, trying to raise some additional financing for the university to continue our growth.

Brian Bonner: Is this your dream or somebody else’s dream you’re enacting?

Kurt Volker: It was a conversation. In early 2020, late 2019, there were four founding partners. I’m one of the four founding partners. We got together and talked about this idea that we want to build an American University in Ukraine. And then we talked about how to go about doing it. I had a relationship with Arizona State University because I had run the McCain Institute for seven years, which was part of ASU, and took it to them as a potential educational partner.

They then formed an alliance with a private education group called Cintana Education. The same people created Laureate, which they then sold off; they run Cintana now. And they were very excited to build this project. That’s how we got started and that was three years before Russia’s full-scale invasion. We did all the homework, we did all the planning, all the building out, the concept for how to do the university.

When Russia’s full-scale invasion broke out I was here, it was February 3, 2022, for the launch of the university. We had a public event and we said: well here we are, we’re starting off at the university. We were going to take our first batch of continuing education students in March with the idea of opening up our doors to undergraduate and graduate (students – ed.) in September.

Well, we had to postpone opening in March 2022, but we decided very quickly that we wanted to go forward anyway. This is needed for Ukraine, it’s needed for the new generation, and it’s a show of confidence in Ukraine that we’re doing this under these circumstances.

So we continued and we did open our doors on September 22 but we had to do it online only for the first year – virtual education. We slowed down the renovation of the building, so we didn’t burn money too fast. But with the second year, which started on September 23, it’s all in-person education. And we have renovated, as you see, this beautiful building here. As we go into our third year, bringing another our estimates are between 300 and 400 new students in September, we intend to make this a hybrid model as well, where we can combine in-person and online education. Our purpose is to continue to grow, to offer access to this dream for as many people as possible

Brian Bonner: What’s your capacity, a thousand students?

Kurt Volker: Bigger. We don’t have the capacity for a thousand now. Our ambition is to get up to around five thousand students. But that will require us, as we grow, to come to another campus.

Brian Bonner: This is bought from a private person or the city?

Kurt Volker: It’s leased, a private individual owns this building and we’re leasing the building on a long-term basis.

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: I’m very inspired by the idea and mission, which is behind the university. That makes us really close to our dream of being a truly strong, democratic country in the heart of Europe with very high living standards, with the right mindset I would say. Of course, the technologies we have, that is a game changer. Have digital capacities like the student information system, student learning system, and all those technological solutions, that are available for the most expensive and popular universities in the world. Our great library with all those digital accesses that we have. So that makes a difference. It’s great that we can offer such a high level of education for Ukrainians which is much cheaper than abroad and they can stay here.

Brian Bonner: Right now what are the most popular majors for students there? I think you graduated 30 something on February 23rd, what did they major in?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: The most popular program is a master’s program in global management and some of the graduates were graduates of this program as well as from our School of Digital Technologies. We will also have second gradation this year with those students, 32 of them, who are now obtaining the diploma from ASU. So in May they will have their graduation ceremony in ASU and they will have their capstone project at AUK, so they will have the dual degree.

We will have about 60 graduates this year, and that’s a proven concept. These people came to us just trusting the idea, and they joined the university. We hadn’t opened our campus at that time, so they started online in 2022. They believed in us, and now they are like the live testimony, the proven concept that this idea comes true. We expect more and more students because the university is driving.

Even though we have this terrible war situation, the program I mentioned, the global management, is quite popular. We are doing that in partnership with one of the leading schools in the whole world which is Thunderbird School of Global Management. On the one hand, it’s complex but on the other hand, it’s so simple and practically oriented. Students are very satisfied with what they learned here. Due to a partnership with EPAM we have quite a strong IT school. Also, a master’s program which is called Global Technology and Artificial Intelligence. That’s a step forward and that opened a lot of opportunities for our graduates on the international market, not only in Ukraine.

Brian Bonner: As you know tens of thousands of Ukrainian students go elsewhere to other nations to get an education. Do you think that with the American University Kyiv we’ll start to see more quality options to keep more Ukrainian students here?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: I’m pretty sure that international students will come to Ukraine as soon as the war is over and the victory will be in our hands. They will be just flowing here to see Kyiv, to see Ukraine. Unfortunately, because of the war, the whole world now knows what Ukraine is. It’s not part of Russia, it’s a big country, a really big country in the center of Europe. And for them, it’s also a great opportunity to have a Ukrainian-American diploma.

Brian Bonner: I’m glad you mentioned the offline events. Since I attended the graduation ceremony on February 23rd, I got invitations from you guys to this offline event, to this online event. What is the strategy behind it?  Is that even if you’re not a student, you want to make the American University used every day or as much as possible and make it a community center? So even non-students can enjoy the beauty there.

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: Yeah, absolutely, and you can see, Brian, that we have the American flag right below the Ukrainian flag in the center of Kyiv. So the building itself tells people like, this is something American here, come closer, see what is going on here. And with our format of AUK Talks, an open platform online and offline, where prominent people can share their experience, talk to our students and not only to our students. We invite a lot of guests.

Let me share with you one example so as to be more specific. As a part of Arizona State University, they have the Pat Tillman’s Veterans Center. This is the leading organization that helps to adopt veterans-students to civilian life. ASU is a big public university, every year, they have about 15,000 veterans in their student community. So, Pat Tillman’s Veterans Center has a huge experience of how to integrate these people into civilian life, and how to smooth this adaptation process.

I was really happy to meet with the director of this center. We had these AUK talks on the issue of how to integrate student veterans into the community, where they shared their experiences. We invited not only our students but also the representatives of different Ukrainian universities to share that experience, how you, as a faculty member or staff member, can interact with students, how to be supportive, how to prevent suicides and other negative tendencies caused by the war.

And that was really helpful. It was not only theory, but it was practically oriented, what we can implement now. And we, all of us could share our experience. That’s just a small piece that illustrates how important this partnership is, that we can contribute to each other: culture, experience, and mindset. So, that’s what we are doing here. We are very proud of our speakers and our audiences. After every speech, we have live Q&A sessions, which demonstrates that people want to know more. Students are so motivated and interested in everything. So yes, we are happy that we can bring some prominent Americans and we can just strengthen this partnership in Ukraine.

Brian Bonner: Veterans issues are so important. Unfortunately, it will be for many years in Ukraine, as it is in America and any other country that’s known war. How do people find out about your events? Are they on the website, or can people subscribe to a newsletter?

Liudmyla Dolhonovska: We just engage people to subscribe to our social media accounts in Facebook and LinkedIn. We regularly update any announcements and release the post videos of our events. They can also follow our website. We have the event module on it, so they can visit that page, watch some events and follow the upcoming news. So, for sure, we are very digital, we are in social media. We can be found, definitely. We are always welcoming people to our campus: this is an ancient Podil.

Brian Bonner: I highly recommend it because I was, you know, old enough to have gone to the river port, which is rundown, but charming in its own way. And the terrace overlooking the Dnipro River was a fabulous place to be. And so, I was a little sad when I first heard that the American University was going to be there. But having been there, you’ve done a wonderful job with remodeling and it’s still a charming place. And I hope as many people as possible will get to see it whether they are going to become students or not.


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