Every time the West’s handling of Ukraine cannot possibly appear more incompetent, someone somehow finds a way to prove that impression wrong.
On Thursday, someone (almost certainly someone in Russian intelligence) posted on YouTube a recorded portion of a telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US Ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. The transcript of that call was primarily about American attempts to influence internal politics in Ukraine by sorting through which opposition leader should be prime minister, and included a highlight of Nuland saying “f— the EU,” a pithy summation of American exasperation at other people’s incompetence.
The call, we now know, was made on two unencrypted cell phones. Two State Department officials, having a conversation about foreign policy while one was in range of Russian electronic detection equipment, had a sensitive policy call on unencrypted devices because the encrypted phones are sort of ugly-looking and less than fun to use.
This was in some ways the logical culmination of the West’s fumbling of Ukraine policy since the summer, when it became increasingly obvious that Russia was willing to pay any price to force Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych away from the pro-European course to which he had committed his government since his election. A series of gaffes, missed opportunities, indifference, and outright blunders emboldened Vladimir Putin, leaving Kyiv no choice but to accept a new foreign policy reality.
Thursday’s embarrassment is perhaps the perfect synecdoche for Western incompetence in Ukraine. It managed to display American arrogance along multiple angles — how in the age of Edward Snowden do government officials have unencrypted calls about major policy? why does the United States get a vote in the government of Ukraine? — along with a fragmented and fractious policy fight in the background (one generally does not say “f— the EU” if all is going well with the EU).
It plays into Russian propaganda that the West is not trying to aid Ukraine, but instead seeks to dominate it. This is a serious problem not only in the heavily Russian-speaking East, but in the hyper-nationalist enclaves in the West as well. In a country torn by fears of being part of one empire or another, this is one of the worse things that could happen short of involving violence .
It poisons the well for both Yanukovych and the opposition leaders, who cannot now meet without their supporters wondering which unseen hand is driving talks in the background. This is a special problem for the opposition, as the fascist Svoboda-led protests have shouted down any effort at conciliation as they attack police with homemade explosives and increasingly heavy weapons. To have international legitimacy, the opposition must be able to call off its most violent elements and end the protests. To date, it has shown no ability to let go of the tiger’s tail; Thursday’s revelations will not help, as already-unhappy protesters are unlikely to abjure violence if they believe opposition leaders are being controlled.
Apparently not content to leave any gaffe well enough alone, the US made it a point to accuse Russian intelligence of intercepting and posting the call. Anyone with experience in signal encryption — which apparently does exclude the United States Department of State — knows that the hardware to capture and filter calls with a high degree of playback quality is available in stores, and the software can be obtained on the internet and even commercially. While it would not be surprising to discover that Russian intelligence services are behind the recording, publicly starting a war of words with Vladimir Putin’s government both plays into Moscow’s desire to have this conflict in the open and encourages Russian popular animosity to the US, shoring up Putin’s domestic support after months of slow bleeding.
Finally, this sordid little affair broadcasts to the whole world exactly how fractured and incompetent the Western response is and has been. It has been obvious since at least November that neither Brussels nor Washington has any idea how to handle the delicate series of problems in play here. Outside of the Kyiv Post, no one here believes the West is working with a single purpose, and no one believes they are doing well. This does nothing to encourage the West’s attempts to portray itself as an inevitable and calm future for Ukraine, which until just days ago was its entire policy in the East.
The test for the West now is not about its ability to aid Ukraine in its efforts to come back together. Rather, it must \show that the West itself can speak with a single voice, a task far less likely than it has ever been.
Image Copyright Wikimedia Commons (from a VOA file)