The apparently hacked phone call between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, which appeared on YouTube last week, has stoked tensions around the Ukrainian crisis. Russian expert Dmitry Polikanov analyzes the implications of the scandal.
U.S. Assistant of Secretary Victoria Nuland apologized for remarks regarding the EU. Photo: Reuters
While the leaked phone conversation between U.S. Assistant of Secretary Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt last week had a clear diplomatic focus - the roles of Ukrainian opposition leaders and the United Nations - Nuland’s insulting remarks about the European Union indicate that U.S. diplomacy faces some problems. The comments, made while Nuland was expressing frustration over the lack of decisiveness from the EU in solving Ukraine’s political turmoil, have met with outrage in Europe.
In fact, the alleged contents of the phone call disclosed by the Ukrainian special services have caused a minor political rift among the major parties in the Ukrainian crisis. The ramifications of the incident are so multi-vector that it is difficult to say who is the real beneficiary of the incident.
As far as Washington is concerned, the consequences of the scandal look set to be quite embarrassing.
First of all, the conversation indicates true attitude of the U.S. foreign policy establishment towards its allies in Europe and in Ukraine. Recent months have been marked with pledges of partnership and an interest in maintaining the strategic liaison across the Atlantic, especially after the Snowden revelations and growing suspicions about a U.S. drift towards Asia.
However, a blunt declaration of the EU’s perceived uselessness in the negotiation process means that the United States continues to regard itself as a “senior partner” and reflects a condescending approach towards the capabilities of EU diplomacy.
The scandal may also provide Vitali Klitschko with fresh options. On the one hand, the idea of preventing him from joining the government may be interpreted as an attempt to save one of the most popular opposition leaders (after Timoshenko) for better times. It is clear that regardless of the form the new government of Ukraine takes, its leader will be responsible for taking the country out of the economic crisis, a process that will inevitably result either in failure or the introduction of tough social reform - neither of which will be popular with the electorate.
On the other hand, Klitschko may read this signal as a U.S. desire to keep him away from power and assign him the role of a permanent public politician without access to real authority – a policy that may cause a rift within the Ukrainian opposition.
Ukrainian opposition leaders Vitaly Klitschko (L) and Arseny Yatsenyuk (R) meet with U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland (2nd L) in Kiev. Photo: Reuters
It is clear anyway that the U.S. is playing its own game of chess here - one in which the EU and the Ukrainian opposition are no more than pawns. This fact alone is hardly likely to burnish U.S. popularity: Even though de facto U.S. interference in Ukrainian domestic affairs and the right of diplomats to use any language they choose in their private exchanges are widely acknowledged, the explicit violation of international norms of politeness means that the eventual publicity has only served to embarrass reputations.
It is also noteworthy that the United States fell victim to its own policy of eavesdropping on phone calls – from this point of view the response of the Ukrainian security officials was rather symbolic.
However, the question is why Nuland chose to then admit that the call had taken place. Merely apologizing would not help her or the U.S. to save face. Perhaps it was important for Washington to indicate the reference to the UN as a potential mediator in the political crisis. Another possibility is that the U.S. may be interested in giving impetus to EU action – be it financial aid or sanctions.
As far as Russia is concerned, the phone call was a boon to Moscow – it exposed the Western traditions of secret diplomacy to the world. Moreover, a split between the EU and the U.S. over Ukraine may assist the Kremlin in pursuing its own more flexible policy if the concerted pressure being applied by the Western countries on President Yanukovych diminishes. Nonetheless, it seems that any propagandistic effect on the Ukrainian public was less significant – the opposition’s close ties with the West were already an open secret for the majority of the Ukrainian population and the scandal may have little real impact on public opinion.
The EU seems to be the only losing party in this game. Regardless of European objections, the phone call indicates that Washington controls the situation much better and the EU is losing momentum in its endless search for consensus and the resulting absence of a clear and coherent policy with regard to Ukraine.
In fact, Ukraine needs money and national reconciliation. All this can be achieved only through concerted efforts by all parties, none of whom have a decisive role in this game or can fully command the opposition. The positive experience of negotiations over Syria and Iran shows that consistent pressure from all sides is capable of yielding a truce and meaningful compromises even in fiercer conflicts.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.