The U.S. State Department’s top diplomat for Europe Victoria Nuland made headlines yesterday when an audio recording of her phone conversation with the U.S. Ambassador with Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt was released. Rumors are swirling that the Russians were surveilling the U.S. diplomats and released the audio recording to embarrass the United States.
What was so embarrassing about it? Nuland, frustrated that the European Union wasn’t acting more forcefully on the Ukraine issue, said “Fuck the EU.”
Here’s the conversation:
While the expletive is what caught all the media attention, much less was paid to the substance of the discussion, which involved Nuland and Pyatt talking about the Ukrainian opposition and some kind of transition, as if it’s any of their business.
Here’s an excerpt from the State Department Press Briefing with reporters asking about the extensive U.S. meddling in Ukraine’s affairs that was made evident by the audio recording:
QUESTION: — now, once we get into it. Quite apart from the colorful language that is used in reference to the European Union, the conversation appears to – well, doesn’t appear to suggest, it does – the conversation shows that the United States certainly has – or at least officials within the U.S. Government have certain opinions about certain Ukrainian opposition leaders and others. And I’m wondering how that squares with your repeated insistence that every – all of this is up to the Ukrainians to decide themselves.
[State Dept. Spokeswoman] MS. PSAKI: It’s not inconsistent in the least bit. It is no secret that Ambassador Pyatt and Assistant Secretary Nuland have been working with the Government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that at any point, there have been discussions about recent events and offers and what is happening on the ground. And as you know, Assistant Secretary Nuland is on the ground right now continuing our efforts in that regard.
It remains the case that it is up to the Ukrainian people themselves to decide their future. It is up to them to determine their path forward, and that’s a consistent message that we’re conveying publicly and privately.
…QUESTION: Because they’re – look, the Russians have repeatedly accused the United States Government of interfering in Ukraine’s politics.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: The U.S. Government has, to some degree, made reciprocal claims about Russia. Does not the fact that U.S. diplomats purportedly are discussing who should and should not be in a Ukrainian government hint at some possibility of U.S. interference here?
MS. PSAKI: Absolutely not. There – it should be no surprise that U.S. officials talk about issues around the world. Of course we do. That’s what you do, that’s what diplomats do, and discuss especially issues where we’ve been closely engaged. The Secretary met with the opposition this weekend. He stopped by a meeting with the foreign minister. It’s up to the people of Ukraine, including officials from both sides, to determine the path forward. But it shouldn’t be a surprise that there are discussions about events on the ground.
QUESTION: This was more than discussions, though. This was two top U.S. officials that are on the ground discussing a plan that they have to broker a future government, and bringing officials from the UN to kind of seal the deal. This is more than the U.S. trying to make suggestions. This is the U.S. midwifing the process.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Elise, you’re talking about a private diplomatic conversation. Those happen all the time. Of course as part of private diplomatic conversations, there are discussions about what involvement the UN can have, what involvement or engagement should happen on the ground. That shouldn’t be a surprise. Of course, these things are being discussed. It doesn’t change the fact that it’s up to the people on the ground, it is up to the people of Ukraine to determine what the path forward is.
QUESTION: But you’re clearly trying to influence what they decide. I mean, one of the quotes is – and this is attributed to Ambassador Pyatt: “I think you reaching out to him” – Klitschko –“helps with the personality management among the three, and it gives you also a chance to move fast and all this stuff and put us behind it before they all sit down.” And he explains why he doesn’t like it. That’s not – that’s not oh, let them figure this out. That’s gee, let’s try to do this so that he won’t decide he doesn’t like this plan.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Arshad, it’s not a secret that we’re engaged with what’s happening on the ground…
Ms. Psaki is caught in a contradiction and she can’t seem to wiggle out of it despite considerable effort. The questioner is right: the U.S. is doing more than “making suggestions” or helping the Ukrainians along a path they’ve chosen for themselves. The conversation, Jacob Heilbrunn writes, “reveals the extent to which the Obama administration is determined not simply to bring the crisis to an end, but also to install a government that it regards as appropriate.”