Much of the international community has been titillated by the secretly recorded phone conversation between the State Department's Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs, Victoria Nuland, and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. In the phone call Ms. Nuland pungently criticizes the European Union and opines to Ambassador Pyatt how opposition leaders Arseniy Tatsenyuk and Vitaliy Klitschko might respond to offers by President Yanukovych to join the government as prime minister and deputy prime minister.
Ms. Nuland has been subjected to intense criticism for her sharp dismissal of the EU and for "interfering in Ukraine's internal affairs." The Russian media, with its usual light touch, claim that that phone call demonstrates that the protesters on the Maidan are American "marionettes." While schadenfreude may explain our attention to the discomfiture of senior officials, a more sober analysis suggests that this is a tempest in a teapot.
The first element of this affair concerns the EU. No less a personage than German chancellor Angela Merkel pronounced Ms. Nuland's utterance "unacceptable," and officials from all over the Continent have piled on; but what is Ms. Nuland’s real fault? Expressing colorful frustration with the slow workings of the EU. In that she joins numerous American officials who, seeking cooperation with Brussels on some issue of mutual interest, find the EU slow to act. And this frustration is not limited to Americans. Enterprising Europeans from London to Warsaw have uttered similar thoughts. On the other side, EU officials in private also vent about those "cowboys" in Washington, ever ready to act without considering the consequences.
More importantly, the savvy Ms. Nuland, who quickly apologized to EU officials, understands that the EU is more influential than the U.S. in Ukraine. The whole crisis began when Ukrainian President Yanukovych walked away from the trade association agreement with the EU. What's more, visa and financial sanctions against senior Ukrainian officials involved in the repression of peaceful demonstrators are much more effective if applied by the EU than the United States. It is in Europe, after all, that wealthy Ukrainians prefer to buy their luxury residences, park their money and educate their children. Washington surely would like the EU to join it in using sanctions.
Ms. Merkel's harsh words for Nuland may partly be explained by her opposition to using sanctions (and also remaining tender feelings over NSA eavesdropping and President Obama's tepid response to it). Ms. Merkel may not like the fact that support for sanctions is growing in the EU. Just before the Nuland-Pyatt conversation became public, the European Parliament called for targeted sanctions on culpable Ukrainians. Perhaps more disturbing for Chancellor Merkel, her own coalition partner and foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has likewise called for sanctions.
The second dimension of this affair touches on Ukraine. Some critics have taken the conversation between Ms. Nuland and Ambassador Pyatt as proof of undue American intervention in the Ukrainian crisis. This is an exaggeration. The American position on Ukraine is clear. Washington would like to see a peaceful resolution to the present crisis, one that strengthens Ukraine's weak democratic tradition. It has levied visa sanctions against unnamed Ukrainian officials to encourage the government to step back from the string of repressive measures that it has taken: efforts to crackdown on demonstrators on the Maidan; the abduction and beating of individual activists and the passage of undemocratic laws.
President Yanukovych thus far has alternated between repressive and inadequate, conciliatory measures to end the protests. To no avail. In such circumstances, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate for American officials to discuss what might be the best tactical reaction for Ukrainian politicians to specific proposals by the other side. It is also not inappropriate for American officials to discuss this with their Ukrainian counterparts. But discussion is not the same as giving instructions. What's more, Ukrainian officials are not apt to follow direction from abroad. Just look at the controversial call. Ms. Nuland is heard favoring Mr. Yatsenyuk becoming prime minister; yet here we are two weeks after the leaked conversation and Mr. Yatsenyuk remains outside the government. That is not the way marionettes respond to their puppetmasters.
The United States has not called for the resignation of the democratically elected President Yanukovych. Neither has it condemned the protesters calling for his resignation because of the clear antidemocratic character of many of his actions. Washington recognizes that a peaceful solution requires the Ukrainian government and the opposition to agree.
For a quick sanity check, compare Washington or Brussels’ role in Ukraine with the Kremlin's. Sergei Glazyev, adviser to President Putin and point man on Ukraine, has called the protesters "putschists" and urges the Yanukovych not to negotiate with them. He helpfully adds that "as for starting to use force, in a situation where the authorities face an attempted coup d'etat, they simply have no other course of action." Now that's an example, with no nuance, of foreign interference.
John Herbst is director of the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University. He served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006. This piece represents the views of the author and not of the National Defense University.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Mstyslav Chernov. CC BY-SA 3.0.