Every time we overhear U.S. diplomats talking when we are not supposed to, the conduct of American foreign policy sounds less imaginative, more reckless, and astonishing in its fidelity to eras many of us thought would never come again. Who would have thought Obama’s conduct abroad would recall so closely Eisenhower’s — the years when the Dulles Brothers, Allen at the CIA and John Foster at State, made sheer havoc in the name of American security — and thus reproduce an eternal state of insecurity?
Allergic to history, American administrations can learn nothing from it. Einstein’s thought on insanity — doing the same thing incessantly and wanting a new result — is the default position. No wonder America’s relations in the Middle East and across both oceans have deteriorated since the Germans took down the Berlin Wall.
The latest lifting of the lid occurred earlier this month, when a covert recording was released via YouTube. The revelations are better than some in the unprecedented tidal wave of material that Wikileaks released in the summer and autumn of 2010.
This time we are in Kiev, and we get to hear two American diplomats talking about Washington’s plan, already in motion, to install a client regime in the Ukraine. The operational detail is astonishing. The incident has received no serious coverage in any American media, so it is another story of the Fourth Estate’s diseased relations to political power, too. With Kiev again erupting in violent confrontation, an understanding of the possible role of covert activities is essential to a complete picture.
The two State Department officials are Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary for European affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the Obama administration’s ambassador in Kiev. Both are foreign service careerists, and it shows that just prior to the wave of protests, they were ready to disrupt the Ukrainian political process with subterfuge and manipulation that are of a fine Cold War vintage.
YouTube disseminated the four-minute audio clip on February 6. It went briefly viral, mostly because of Nuland’s R-rated recommendation for the European Union, which also takes a lively interest in Ukraine these days. The Europeans, she told Pyatt, should be shoved aside with what in another context would be called the act of love.
“No, exactly,” the sycophantic Pyatt replies without missing a syllable.
Well, yes, exactly. The sailor’s language is surprising, and maybe a little fun to find in an exchange between a supposedly sophisticated diplomat and a bureaucrat whose ignorance should have debarred her from policy formation. But anyone titillated by Nuland’s vulgar tongue more than very briefly misses the point entirely.
As the recording spread around the world, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski quickly tweeted, “Critics of @VictoriaNuland worldwide: let him who has never used strong language in private cast the first stone.” This is the point. Forget that stone. There are others to cast.
We do not know who recorded these remarks. It was almost certainly the Russians, though neither Moscow nor Kiev has had any comment. And it is unlikely, not to say ridiculous, that Moscow might have thought Nuland’s vulgarity was worth exposing. Sikorski was one with Russian President Vladimir Putin on this, though he did not intend to be. The clip is about meddling; this was Putin’s point (assuming it was Putin who ordered the point made).
Between Russia and Europe
As a republic in the old Soviet Union, Ukraine had been restless within its economic and geopolitical political confines since it declared independence in 1991. It desired to shake free of the ancien regime in favor of freer markets, a more liberal society, and so on.
Last year President Viktor Yanukovich was in negotiations with the European Union for an extensive trade agreement. With the economy flat at best and national debt large, it was to be signed in tandem with an International Monetary Fund bailout. It would have been the key moment of departure for Ukrainians: They would walk away from their post–Soviet inheritance and enter — tentatively at first, maybe more later — the West European orbit.
Yanukovich had been avowedly in favor of geopolitical and economic reinvention. Then he pulled an abrupt volte-face, turning back to Moscow and a $15-billion bailout dangled by Putin. And this is when protesters against the Yanukovich government, as seen and described in the world’s media daily, began to fill Kiev’s streets.
It is plain what happened. And demonizing Yanukovich is a distraction. Many in his opposition are oligarchs of the new Russian model, in it for the opportunity, wishing to replace corruption under Yanukovich with a variant more beneficial to themselves. No heroes here. While Yanukovich, elected in 2010, was all for the break with Moscow, he finally reckoned Ukraine could not afford it. The EU’s offers came with too many conditions and amounted to a small fraction of Putin’s; they did not adequately address an economy in critical trouble.
As the protests escalated, Moscow announced that it would release a $2-billion tranche of the bailout via purchases of Ukrainian bonds. It had earlier spent $3 billion on Kiev’s sovereign paper, but Putin had suspended funds late last month after the resignation of Yanukovich’s Moscow-tilted Prime Minister Mykola Azarov. The resumption of funding is plainly a setback for the Europeans and Americans, even as protests in the capital intensified dramatically in apparent response.
It is difficult to read these disturbances now. Several leaders in the fight against Yanukovich do not enjoy the allegiance of some of the more confrontational opposition factions. Equally, the Nuland audio tape is suggestive when one keeps history in mind. We cannot possibly know if the intervention Nuland and Pyatt described included street-level provocations. But neither can we ignore the striking similarities between these disturbances and the social and political mayhem Allen Dulles ordered repeatedly when undermining undesired leaders during the 1950s and 1960s.
That same week, and on the other side of the world, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered three U.S. diplomats expelled, charging them with cultivating students to act against the government. This is the third set of expulsions Caracas has ordered in the past year. Venezuela has faced incessant U.S. attempts to subvert it covertly since the late Hugo Chavez was elected in 1999. The thought that we are witnessing the same in Ukraine now simply can’t be dismissed.
A Reuters correspondent, Elizabeth Piper, produced a superb blow-by-blow account of Ukraine’s predicament late last year. In it she quoted Volodymyr Oliynyk, a close ally of the president. “We go one way to Russia and we get hit,” he said. “We go the other way, to Europe, and we get hit. We stand still, and we get hit.” And then, referring to the turn back to Moscow: “But it will hurt less this way.”
It is persuasive. Look at the numbers Piper cites. Read the EU conditions, some of which were spiteful and had no intent other than to cultivate euro-tilted political tendencies. And, as always, the IMF’s conditionality reeked of ideological bias.
We saw this repeatedly after the Wall came down. There is a tendency among the East European nations to idealize the West, as if westernizing is the solution to all problems. I see this among the Kiev demonstrators. It is a mistake. Disillusion is never far when people follow this line of thought to its end.
The East-West contention on the Ukraine question has produced an essentialism that works entirely against the interest of Ukrainian citizens. The way out of this — unlikely as it may prove — is to repudiate the thought that their choice lies in choosing one side or the other. In a better world, Ukrainians would decide how best to be Ukrainian and let other nations interact as they will on this basis.
The Essence of Nuland’s Remark
The Europeans and the Americans share a goal in Ukraine. The West unites around the thought of undermining Putin’s neo-imperial ambitions and pushing institutions such as NATO up to his doorstep. But there’s a difference, too. The EU proposes doing this by enticing Kiev westward with a carrot surrounded on the dish with sticks. They prefer negotiation — tough, calculated negotiation — to intervention, remaining within international law, while the Americans want to go in directly to exert covert influence in the political process.
Nuland’s language interests me only to the extent that it reveals the extraordinary limitations of an influential representative of the United States. Repeat the infamous phrase a few times, think of who said it and at what moment, and you are forced to recognize it is actually supposed to stand as a policy judgment.
More interesting by far are the machinations Nuland and Pyatt describe. The American plot revolves around manipulating various figures in the opposition, backing the fortunes of some, keeping others from the table, and thereby inducing a friendly, post–Yanukovich government of one kind or another, compromised from its very conception.
On the YouTube segment, we are present for a brief four minutes of a months- long conversation. But the undertaking is clear in outline and apparently not far from getting under way. “I think we’re in play,” Pyatt offers. And: “We’ve got to do something to make it stick…. We want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. ”
On this last point, Nuland thinks Vice President Biden is the man, and she is pleased to have twisted Ban Ki-moon’s much-twisted arm to get some good UN cover in the meantime. “That would be great,” she remarks, “to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, f— the EU.”
There are a couple of good guides through this important audio clip — interestingly but unsurprisingly in the foreign media. The best was by the BBC’s diplomatic correspondent, Jonathan Marcus, who gives us an annotated transcript explaining what we hear (or read). The U.S. coverage, such as it was, was unusually craven, even by the standards of the American press and broadcasters. The New York Times is a good enough example, especially given the extent to which other media take it as a guide to the acceptable.
The Times reported the story dutifully and austerely when it broke. It offered no description of the tape’s content beyond the vulgar language, no analysis of the recording’s evidence of intervention. Then Mark Landler, the Times’ State Department correspondent, pitched Nuland a disgraceful softball, referring to the recording as a “salty peek at Trans–Atlantic strains.” Again, the subject was limited to the indiscretion. With stunning credulousness, Landler quoted Nuland — defended as “a competent, experienced, well-briefed diplomat” — as she spun the gaffe. “Part of my charm, and my liability, is that I call it like I see it,” she said.
It is remarkable that a newspaper of the Times’ prominence would reproduce this thought without questioning it. Nuland may call it as she sees it, but she does not see at all broadly. To be as fair to Landler as one can be, his intent appears to have been limited to assuring his future access at State. He wrote a one-source story. This is how Times correspondents customarily cover Washington.
Lessons to Learn
Look at a map. What good could possibly come of an attempt to install a client government on Russia’s doorstep? How could anyone judge this wise — or to hold even a smidgeon of promise? Look also at history. Have Nuland and Pyatt and those above them reflected on how 60-odd years of these kinds of operations have worked out? It’s not a pretty record.
I hear a disturbing inability to think or see the world as it is or alter course in those four minutes. Foreign policy is pure function now. There is no need to consider the why or the wisdom of it in response to a new era. Ambitious apparatchiks will simply get it done as it has been done before.
In Ukraine, two U.S. policymakers debate the fate of a nation. In Washington, policymakers should be considering instead the fate of their own, a country that seems incapable of change in a world busy changing.
Patrick Smith was a correspondent abroad for many years and now writes foreign affairs commentary. His most recent book is Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century (Yale, 2013). He is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus.