Is Russia using tradecraft to split U.S., E.U.?

By Dale R. Herspring

American diplomats are taught early to assume that unless they are using classified means of communication, they should assume that all of their official telephone conversations, Internet and other forms of communication are being bugged or hacked.

This is pertinent now because of some decidedly undiplomatic language Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland used in a recent telephone call with Geoffrey Pyat, the American Ambassador in Ukraine. During that call, Ms. Nuland, speaking about the European Union’s mediation team in Ukraine, said, “F*** the EU.” Her comment was on YouTube Feb. 6.

What is lost amid the YouTube embarrassment is how best to deal with the chaos in Ukraine. That chaos involves popular discontent over Ukraine’s president’s decision not to forge closer ties with the EU and instead to cement a long-term relationship with Russia.

For some time, the U.S. government has been frustrated with the EU’s docile, even stand-offish approach to the situation. The United States prefers a more direct approach, even getting involved in Ukraine’s internal politics. While Nuland disparages the EU for its lack of action, she praises the United Nations for its willingness to play a more active role, “That would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and let the U.N. help glue it,” she said.

Pyat responds, “Exactly.” He further notes, “The Russians will be working behind the scenes to try and torpedo it.”

Nuland’s comment clearly upset the European Union and also embarrassed the United Nations by saying it is far easier to work with the United Nations than with Europe.

She also managed to irritate the Ukrainian opposition that the United States purportedly supports. In discussing who should get what position, she and Pyat make clear that they do not support Vitali Klitschko, the former heavyweight boxing champion who has been the face of the opposition and who was offered a high position in the Ukrainian government.

What if Klitschko ends up as Ukraine’s president? He will support close ties with America despite Nuland’s comments because Ukraine needs the United States both for political and economic reasons. However, our country’s effort to ensure that he does not become president will inevitably affect our bilateral relations. What’s more, Nuland’s indiscretion tells Ukrainians that Washington is willing to manipulate Ukrainian domestic politics.

Nuland’s leaked remarks also angered German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel’s spokes-person said the chancellor “finds these remarks totally unacceptable and wants to emphasize that Ms. Ashton (the EU foreign policy chief who has tried to mediate and ease tension in Ukraine) is doing an outstanding job.” 

I think the United States is playing with fire. Merkel is the most important leader in Europe and is not a person to infuriate. She was angry enough last year by Edward Snowden’s revelations that the United States had listened to her private cell phone calls. 

What’s more, Nuland managed to embarrass the U.N. secretary-general, who had approved sending the U.N. team to Kiev.  Getting agreement on any joint action at the United Nations, already difficult, may be even more challenging now.

Washington appears convinced that the Russians intercepted the phone call and sent it to YouTube. How do we know? Publicly we point to the Russian official who was the first to draw attention to the leak. I suspect that there is more to this incident than meets the eye. We probably intercepted Russia’s intercept of the call.

Assume the Russians did intercept it. Why publicize it?  It would show how much the Russians want to keep Ukraine in their political-economic sphere. What better way than to create a rift in relations between the United States and its European allies over the situation in Ukraine?

The strategy certainly worked with Merkel. As a leading German newspaper put it, “The USA has no respect for Germany.” I doubt we will have good relations with Berlin until a new administration takes over. 

As far as I understand, Nuland is not a career Foreign Service Officer. Rather, she is a political appointee who was not accustomed to the restrictions placed on State Department employees. If this conversation was recorded on an open line, then both she and the ambassador should be held accountable. It may be that the phone line was “secure” and that the Russians managed to bug it.

In any event, this dust-up underscores the importance of diplomats assuming their phone calls are bugged.

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