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Friday, February 7, 2014

Fallout Continues Over U.S. Diplomat’s Comments

U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland looks at her notes during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev on February 7, 2014. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. State Department Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland looks at her notes during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev on February 7, 2014. (Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images)

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland has apologized for saying “f*** the E.U.” during what she thought was a private phone conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. German leader Angela Merkel condemned Nuland’s comments as totally unacceptable.

The flap has added to the tension in Ukraine, where anti-government demonstrators have been protesting against President Viktor Yanukovych since he rejected closer ties with the E.U. and accepted a huge loan from Russia.

Stephen Sestanovich knows both diplomacy and Victoria Nuland. He worked on Russia and Ukraine at the State Department in both the Clinton and Reagan administrations. He joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to discuss the implications of the embarrassing leak of American policy.

Interview Highlights: Stephen Sestanovich

On Nuland’s leaked comments

“I think it’s probably good for people to realize that State Department diplomats know how to curse. Victoria Nuland is an extremely accomplished American diplomat. But the real issue isn’t her colorful speech, it’s what’s going on behind the scenes to resolve an extremely dangerous crisis.”

“There is gonna be some pious public language saying, ‘Oh, this is really unacceptable, this is regrettable,’ and Ambassador Nuland herself has had to apologize, and that’s appropriate. You know, what you say in private is fine, as long as it doesn’t become public, and once it does, you have to apologize for it.”

On what the E.U. means to Ukrainians

“There’s no question that the E.U. represents a kind of powerful magnet for a lot of Ukrainians, that they see that as their future as a way of becoming a normal country. The issue, of course, is whether the E.U. can help to make that happen, and Victoria Nuland was expressing some skepticism about how effective the E.U. was. Oddly enough, she was talking about getting the U.N. more involved, and American diplomats don’t generally think that’s the way to go, trying to solve a problem. The real issue is — well, there are two related questions: putting together a new government in Ukraine that can launch reform, and putting together a financial package that can help that government succeed. Outside of Ukraine, there’s a lot of pushing and shoving going on as to who’s gonna influence those two processes: the Russians on the one side, the Americans and the Europeans on the other. And what Ambassador Nuland was talking to her colleague in Ukraine about was how to nudge the Ukrainians toward an outcome — put a new government that would make that reform worth investing in for the U.S. and Europe.”

On U.S. involvement in Ukraine

“It’s a really tender subject if it can be represented that the United States is picking Ukraine’s government. Really, what I hear — the conversation, they’re talking about, sort of which will be the best result. They’re not exaggerating their ability to actually produce this result, although a lot of Ukrainians, certainly a lot of the protesters, want a more engaged American and European role. They want more pressure on the government to, for example, grant amnesty to demonstrators. They want the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions on the Ukrainian government who’ve been involved in the repression. One of the things that has kept this crisis going is not just the issue of the Ukrainian economy or its future relationship to Europe, but the extreme brutality of the government in dealing with protesters. This has enraged public opinion and enraged the crowds.”

Guest

Transcript

ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:

And let's turn now to that sentiment expressed about Europe by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland during what she thought was a private phone call with Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. In an embarrassing leak of American policy, the two talked about which opposition leader they want to be part of a new government in Ukraine. Publicly the U.S. has been saying it wants Ukrainians to decide that.

Then Secretary Nuland used the F-bomb to dismiss the EU. It's thought the Russians, who back the Ukrainian government, leaked that phone call. After apologizing for her language, Nuland said she thought it was pretty impressive statecraft, whoever did it. A State Department spokeswoman was less charitable, saying that if Russia was involved, it would be a new low. She did not mention the NSA eavesdropping revealed by leaker Edward Snowden, who's being sheltered by the Russians.

Steve Sestanovich worked on Russia and Ukraine at the State Department in both the Clinton and Reagan administrations. He's also the author of the new book "Maximalist: America in the World from Truman to Obama." It comes out next week. Stephen, welcome.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: Thanks.

YOUNG: And this feels like we are in the middle of an improbable movie, you know, with suddenly eavesdropping and bugging and phones so much in the headlines. But it has serious consequences for Ukrainians. You know Victoria Nuland. She used to work for you at the State Department. What do you make of what she said during that phone call?

SESTANOVICH: Well, I think it's probably good for people to realize that State Department diplomats know how to curse. Victoria Nuland is an extremely accomplished American diplomat. But the real issue isn't her colorful speech. It's what's going on behind the scenes to resolve an extremely dangerous crisis.

YOUNG: Let's remind ourselves, the unrest in Ukraine and it's violent and dangerous, as you said, came after President Yanukovych decided not to sign a trade pact with the EU, opting instead to maintain strong ties with Russia and accept a $15 billion from Russia. Many Ukrainians were outraged by that. They wanted to open ties with Europe.

But, you know, you say OK, you know, the fact that people might have heard this language, that's one thing, but what she was saying was dismissing the EU. Who cares what they think? Given, you know, that many Ukrainians do care about the EU, that's what this is all about, how does it resonate there?

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, there's no question but that the EU represents a kind of powerful magnet for a lot of Ukrainians, that they see that as their future as, you know, a way of becoming a normal country. The issue, of course, is whether the EU can help to make that happen, and Victoria Nuland was I guess expressing some skepticism about how effective the EU was.

Oddly enough, she was talking about getting the U.N. more involved, and American diplomats don't generally think that's the way to go, trying to solve a problem. The real issue is - well, there are two related questions: putting together a new government in Ukraine that can launch reform and putting together a financial package that can help that government succeed.

Outside of Ukraine, there's a lot of pushing and shoving going on as to who's going to influence those two processes: the Russians on the one side; the Americans and the Europeans on the other. And what Ambassador Nuland was talking to her colleague in Ukraine about was how to nudge the Ukrainians toward an outcome, put a new government that would make that reform worth investing in for the U.S. and Europe.

YOUNG: Well, and what about the other things that she said? It's well-known that the U.S. is not backing President Yanukovych. But here we hear her and the ambassador talking about who from the opposition they're backing, tender subject.

SESTANOVICH: There's - yeah, it's a really tender subject if it can be represented that the United States is picking Ukraine;s government. Really what I hear the conversation, they're talking about, sort of which will be the best result. They're not exaggerating their ability to actually produce this result, although a lot of Ukrainians, and certainly a lot of the protesters, want a more engaged American and European role.

They want more pressure on the government to, for example, grant amnesty to demonstrators. They want the U.S. and Europe to impose sanctions on officials in the Ukrainian government who've been involved in the repression. One of the things that has kept this crisis going is not just the issue of the Ukrainian economy or its future relationship to Europe but the extreme brutality of the government in dealing with protesters. This has enraged public opinion and enraged the crowds and given a kind of legitimacy to violent groups that really are looking for trouble.

YOUNG: Well, you know, I just want to ask you something, Stephen. You said that there's sort of a sense of understanding that in private, or when they think they're in private, you know, people aren't going to be shocked to hear that diplomats might curse. But Germany's leader, Angela Merkel, says that what Nuland said about the EU was totally unacceptable. You know, are you sure this isn't going to cause more waves than that?

SESTANOVICH: I'm not sure.

YOUNG: Right.

(LAUGHTER)

SESTANOVICH: People can take swear words in a bad way. There is an effort being made, largely successful, to keep the U.S. and the EU working together. There is going be some pious public language saying oh, this is really unacceptable, this is regrettable, and Ambassador Nuland herself has had to apologize, and that's appropriate. You know, what you say in private is fine, as long as it doesn't become public, and once it does, you have to apologize for it.

YOUNG: Stephen Sestanovich, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and former State Department official. His new book "Maximalist." Stephen, thanks so much.

SESTANOVICH: A pleasure.

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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