Now that the Ukrainian opposition has toppled the government, the leaked telephone conversation between the U.S. Ambassador and Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland, in which the latter told him to “f— the E.U.,” has taken on added significance. Despite President Barack Obama’s wishy-washy response to the crisis, the State Department seems to have taken on a very active pro-opposition role.
President Obama urged both sides not to cross his “line” into violence (which they promptly did, less than 24 hours later), and made vague threats about sanctions, but did not want to take sides or become very involved. Indeed, his response was weaker than that of the EU, which did impose sanctions despite having been reluctant to antagonize Russia. Obama was so reluctant to act that he let Vice President Joe Biden take the lead.
Secretary of State John Kerry was also rather quiet. But the career bureaucrats at the State Department seemed to be hard at work on the opposition’s behalf, understanding full well the unique opportunity the Ukraine crisis presented to push back Vladimir Putin’s imperial advance. The reason Nuland had told Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt to “f— the EU” was because she wanted him to take a far more aggressive approach, and challenge Putin.
President Obama’s comments late last week suggest that here is almost no way Nuland was acting in accord with official administration policy. He wanted tensions to cool, just as the EU’s leadership did. And it is likely that Putin, who spoke with Obama, expected the U.S. to act accordingly. President Obama is, after all, an open and adamant supporter of the EU and its diplomatic prerogatives, and prefers “leading from behind.”
It is entirely possible that Nuland and the State Department acted on their own. They know that President Obama is disengaged from foreign affairs, and that Secretary Kerry is obsessively focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Though many State Department bureaucrats lean left, and preferred Obama to the Republican alternatives, they know–after Benghazi–that the White House does not have their backs.
In addition, it can only have been extremely disappointing to many career foreign service officers to see President Obama nominate a larger number of political cronies to ambassadorships than his recent predecessors. Nuland and her colleagues may have decided that foreign policy is too important to be left to amateurs and dilettantes. They may have gone “rogue” in Ukraine. If so, for once, hats off to State.