Nuland and Tombinski Calls Show Why U.S. Should Stop Undercutting European Diplomacy

February 12, 2014
James George Jatras
Deputy Director, AIU

The controversy over last week’s tapped phone call between Assistant Secretary of State for Europe and Eurasia Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt has turned out to have remarkable staying power. Secretary Nuland has even earned the dubious honor of the “worst week in Washington” designation from the Washington Post. The embarrassing episode now commands the attention of many people in the United States who don’t pay attention to Ukraine and, frankly, would be unable to find it on a map.

But now that the flurry of attention over Nuland’s undiplomatic (and unladylike) dropping of what American media euphemistically call “the F-bomb” has shifted to the content of the call, the real damage to America policy is becoming clear:

First, the Nuland-Pyatt chat shows the astonishing degree to which top U.S. officials are in direct, real-time contact with “Yats” and “Klitsch” and influence their actions. While it is unlikely that Arseniy Yatseniuk and Vitaliy Klitschko are under direct U.S. control, they are assumed by American officials to be subject to a high degree of guidance from Washington. (Oleh Tyahnybok seems another matter.)

Second, the call cannot fail to have a negative impact on the Batkivshchina and UDAR leaders’ already shaky authority with the people in the streets. Prospects for a negotiated settlement to the ongoing crisis are not helped by the fact that no one (certainly not Yatseniuk and Klitschko) can speak with authority for the protesters, especially for the more radical and violent elements. This makes it hard for the government to have confidence in the possibility of a settlement, since both sides know acceptance of any deal by the Opposition’s nominal “leaders” wouldn’t carry much weight. It’s hardly surprising then that any government concession short of capitulation is immediately declared to be insufficient.

Third, the uncompromising tone of the Nuland-Pyatt exchange adds new and troubling significance to Secretary of State John Kerry’s characterization in Munich earlier this month of the crisis as “fight for a democratic, European future” for Ukraine. “The United States and EU stand with the people of Ukraine in that fight,” said the Secretary, who then met with Klitschko, Yatseniuk, and Petro Poroschenko as presumed representatives of “the people” defined exclusively as those supporting the Opposition’s “legitimate” demands. These include the call for President Viktor Yanukovych to resign. Thus, once again U.S. officials appear to be thinking in terms of “regime change.” This reflects their conceptual division of Ukraine into “the people” (i.e., those who support Ukraine’s geopolitical integration into “Euro-Atlantic” structures: the European Union (EU) and eventually NATO) and those who are not considered to be “the people” (maybe they’re the “anti-people”?) because they don’t support such integration or even oppose it. This conceptualization renders normal political compromise – and, therefore, the rule of law and even the results of democratic elections – irrelevant.

Fourth, and perhaps most damaging to American policy, the call has exposed and further aggravated America’s rift with the Europeans, who are in Nuland’s State Department portfolio. Vulgarity aside, her dismissive language toward the EU has exacerbated a significant difference between the U.S. and our closest allies on how to resolve the mess in Ukraine, with the EU more open to political give-and-take and less ready to apply sanctions. The growing U.S.-EU gulf received further confirmation from another leaked phone call between a senior German diplomat, Helga Schmid, and the head of the EU mission in Kiev, Jan Tombinski. The defensive tone of the Schmid-Tombinski conversation under American pressure is evident. It shows, in the words of one unnamed European diplomat, “a general mood among the Americans, and not just on Ukraine, that they are getting tired of EU diplomacy, that we are not effective even in our own neighborhood.”

It’s hard to fathom any concrete U.S. interest in pressuring the Europeans to take a harder line on Ukraine than they think prudent. Quite to the contrary, one would think the proper role of a loyal ally that (as is the case here) has less exposure to the consequences of possible failure would be one of quiet support. If things fall apart in Ukraine because compromise is not reached, Europe and Russia – and Ukrainians themselves – will have to deal with the fallout, not primarily the United States.

In assuming a “pushy” attitude on Ukraine, the U.S. certainly does not intend to provoke violent conflict. But that could well be the inadvertent outcome. American policy on Ukraine today is disturbingly reminiscent of early 1992 Bosnia, when Washington undermined European efforts at a power-sharing arrangement among Muslims, Serbs, and Croats under the so-called Lisbon Agreement or Carrington-Cutileiro plan in favor of insisting on the maximalist goals of our (Muslim) “clients.” No one now wants to see a “Yugoslav scenario” in Ukraine, but a dogged and inflexible push for designated U.S. “clients” could undermine hope for compromise, leading to unintended, horrific results.

Let’s hope that embarrassment in Washington, if nothing else, leads wiser counsel to prevail. U.S. officials should stop trying to micromanage Ukrainian politicians’ actions, and stop pressuring our European friends because “they are getting tired of EU diplomacy.” Indeed, Ukraine really is in the Europeans’ “own neighborhood,” not America’s, and U.S. policymakers should respect that.