US Upbeat About Ukraine’s Membership Talks at EU Summit

STATE DEPARTMENT — The top diplomat on European and Eurasian affairs at the U.S. State Department expressed optimism regarding Ukraine’s accession to the European Union, despite Hungary’s looming threat to veto the bid at a two-day summit starting Thursday.

The senior official also predicted that Russian President Vladimir Putin will “wait through” the results of European elections in 2024 and the U.S. presidential election next November before making peace in Ukraine.

On Wednesday, James O’Brien, assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, spoke to VOA State Department bureau chief Nike Ching on issues facing Eurasia countries.

Putin “thinks that the way he wins is that Ukraine support drops,” said O’Brien. While not commenting on U.S. domestic politics, O’Brien said, “It’s clear if President Biden is [reelected] that President Putin’s hopes will not come to bear.”

EU heads of state are set to decide this week whether to launch formal membership talks with Ukraine. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Russia’s closest ally in the EU, is threatening to veto the move.

“What’s clear is the 27 members stand strong in favor of the union growing, including Ukraine once it’s ready, and continuing financial support, as well. He’s [Orban] one voice, and we’ll see how the discussion goes among the leaders once they’re made,” O’Brien told VOA.

O’Brien also welcomed a prisoner swap between Azerbaijan and Armenia at their border on Wednesday as a significant step toward “building a normal bilateral relationship” between the two countries after decades of conflict.

But he played down the likelihood of the U.S. hosting the next round of Azerbaijan-Armenia peace talks in Washington before the end of this year.

“We’re running out of time this year. We’ll do our best,” O’Brien told VOA.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

VOA: Today, Azerbaijan and Armenia exchanged prisoners at their border. How significant is this?

James O’Brien, assistant secretary of state: I think what’s really significant is that the two countries are talking with each other and reaching practical agreements. So, they announced this prisoner release last week, and now just this week, the prisoners are now home. And they issued a joint statement that indicated support for one another in many ways, including their international aspirations for Azerbaijan to host the COP, which they’ve now been awarded, and hopefully both countries will benefit, and for Armenia’s international aspirations, as well. And that kind of demonstration of support is a key part of building a normal bilateral relationship.

VOA: After your meeting in Baku, would you describe business as usual in the U.S.’s relationship with Azerbaijan? Would the State Department host foreign ministers from Azerbaijan and Armenia by the end of this year?

O’Brien: What we’ve said to both countries is that we’re very happy to facilitate them concluding a peace agreement. We’ve already hosted several rounds of peace talks between the two foreign ministers, and we would do that again if the sides determined that that will help them conclude a successful peace.

VOA: By the end of this year?

O’Brien: Well, we’re running out of time this year. We’ll do our best.

VOA: Kyiv was struck by Russian missiles overnight. Ukraine’s top mobile operator was hit by the biggest cyberattack. Can you talk about the latest developments, and how does the U.S. target Russian military procurement networks?

O’Brien: I think it was very helpful for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to come here. What we see is that Ukraine has taken back more than half the territory that Russia seized since February of 2022. It’s continuing to advance on the battlefield. It has opened up its own Black Sea trading routes, and that’s the key to its economy recovering. With the assistance that our European partners are going to provide, and then we would provide, we think Ukraine can build on this success and emerge victorious in this war. That will produce a Ukraine that’s very well-prepared to become wealthy and has a population anxious to join the European Union and the transatlantic organizations like NATO, all of which is a good thing for the security and prosperity of the United States.

VOA: A senior U.S. official has said that Russian President Putin will not make peace in Ukraine before he sees the results of the November 2024 U.S. election. Do you agree with that assessment?

O’BRIEN: So, I think yes. I mean, President Putin is on his own diplomatic offensive, visiting several countries, being filmed talking openly about the prospect of the war. And throughout, he’s trying to persuade people that he believes time is on his side, and he thinks if they continue to fight, that ultimately Russia will win. I think this is simply a bluff.

I think the long-term trends are not in favor of Russia, and his one hope is to attack civilian infrastructure, like the bank, or the places civilians live in Kyiv and elsewhere, in order to inflict pain in the hope that that will make Ukraine sue for peace. Or he has to hope that there’ll be some dramatic change in international support for Ukraine. That’s why he’ll wait through our election, and I think other European elections, over the next year.

VOA: Just to clarify, do you mean that Putin will not make peace in Ukraine until he sees President Biden being reelected, or he sees the Republican candidate being elected?

O’Brien: Well, I think he wants to see the result of elections across Europe and the United States. [The] European Union has elections next year. He thinks that the way he wins is that Ukraine’s support drops. Now, on [the] U.S. election, I’m not going to talk domestic politics. I will say, President Biden just said yesterday, ‘I will not walk away from Ukraine. I want to see Ukraine win, and Ukraine will win.’ So, it’s clear if President Biden is elected, that President Putin’s hopes will not come to bear.

VOA: Can you comment on the upcoming EU summit and potential veto from Hungary over Ukraine’s membership talks?

O’Brien: These are historic moments. The members of the European Union, all the leaders, are going to meet over the next days, and they will decide on budgetary support for Ukraine for the next four years, on a package of financial support for the states of the Western Balkans to encourage reform among those six countries, and a broader package. And they will decide whether they want the union to commit itself to enlarging — to adding up to nine new countries. That’s a 33% increase in the size of the European Union. Prime Minister Orban has been very outspoken and let his views be understood elsewhere. I think what’s clear is the 26 members stand strong in favor of the union growing, including Ukraine once it’s ready, and continuing financial support, as well. He’s one voice, and we’ll see how the discussion goes among the leaders once they’re made.

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