Comment: Nuland’s leaked phone call is ‘populist intelligence’

My phone started ringing off the hook on Thursday evening, when a video appeared on YouTube containing a frank conversation between Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt. Nuland, Assistant Secretary at the United States Department of State, and Pyatt, US Ambassador to Ukraine, were discussing US diplomatic moves on the political standoff in Ukraine. In the conversation, which was clearly meant to be private, Nuland expresses frustration with efforts by the European Union, which she deems weak and inadequate. In a shocking display of candor, Nuland tells Pyatt that the US should “help glue this thing and […] have the UN help glue it and, you know, f**k the EU”.

On Thursday night I spoke at the main news program of BBC television, where I agreed with most observers —some of the US government officials— that Russia was the obvious culprit behind the leaked conversation. The geopolitical interests of Washington and Brussels coincide almost completely when it comes to Ukraine, as both wish to detach the former Soviet republic from the Russian sphere of influence. So driving a wedge between the two allied sides is clearly to the benefit of Moscow. I added that the two American officials should have known better than to speak so frankly on the phone, given the constant monitoring of diplomatic communications by both adversary and friendly intelligence services, which is common knowledge in diplomatic circles.

More to the point, I suggested that the leaked telephone conversation should be viewed within the wider context of the revelations by Edward Snowden, the American intelligence whistleblower who has been granted political asylum by Russia. It appears to me that Moscow is attempting a populist form of intelligence-based approach, by which it tries to “name and shame” America’s perceived hypocrisy on a number of hot-button issues, such as civil liberties and the treatment of allies, including the EU. Interestingly, Moscow is trying to damage the credibility of the US by communicating directly with Western populations —something that is perhaps reminiscent of the 1960 U-2 incident, though with the added factor of social networking outlets.

The BBC presenter asked me whether I thought the revelation of Nuland’s comment would impact the alliance between the US and the EU on Ukraine. I responded that, by itself, the leaked conversation represented a momentary crisis of embarrassment, which would be overcome relatively quickly. However, in connection with the wider revelations by Edward Snowden, this latest controversy could easily snowball into a protracted crisis in the relationship between Western Europe and the US. Germany has already made its displeasure about Nuland’s comments publicly known. It remains to be seen exactly how Berlin and other European capitals will react to these revelations.

4 Responses to Comment: Nuland’s leaked phone call is ‘populist intelligence’

  1. Lucas N. says:

    I’m still amazed by the fact that Western media is focusing solely on the content of the conversation and not on the fact that Russia is so blatantly using kompromat against his American adversary.

  2. John Dolt says:

    What is not clear at all is whether Ms. Nuland was speaking on an unsecured line – which would not surprise me – or whether the incident reveals Russia is unscrambling a supposedly secure line. The State Dept. has a notorious history of inept security.

  3. 007 says:

    I don’t understand what Nuland was asking Pyatt to do. I assume, by ‘glue this thing’, she meant to bring the Ukraine under Western rather than Russian influence, but HOW was she hoping for Pyatt or the UN to accomplish this? [especially, the UN!] I was thinking that she was suggesting that Pyatt do something to influence their elections [arent they going to have elections soon?] If the conversation indicates that the US is attempting to influence elections [by stirring up Ukraine protests or by ‘buying’ specific Ukraine candidates], that is even more embarrassing to the US than rehashing Snowden/NSA. It shows the US [yet again] using underhanded tactics to influence elections, corrupt the political process, and interfere in foreign governments. And how did Nuland expect to involve the UN in this scheme?

  4. SteveM says:

    I agree with Lucas. The content of the conversation should not be the focus, rather the focus should be on the clear violation of a diplomats private conversation. The international community operates under a double standard, one set of rules for the US and one set of rules for those hostile to the US. This “leak” makes it clear that US communications are the target of foreign intelligence collection and this hostile collection is being used to undermined the US’ international position.

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