Cold War spy craft appears to be repeating itself as farce in Ukraine.
An audio recording with Russian subtitles -- posted on YouTube and advertised by Russian officials on Twitter -- has severely embarrassed two U.S. diplomats, purportedly taped as they tried to resolve the political crisis in Ukraine. Russia seems to believe this proves dastardly American interference in the affairs of a sovereign country. Instead, it exposes the minimal influence that the U.S. has on events in Eastern Europe's biggest nation.
In the clip, voices resembling those of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, are heard discussing a proposal by President Viktor Yanukovych to defuse protests against him by offering the posts of prime minister and deputy prime minister to two parliamentary opposition leaders, Arseni Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, respectively.
The man and woman holding the recorded conversation – let's call them Nuland and Pyatt, since the U.S. has not denied the clip's authenticity – use familiar nicknames for the opposition figures: Yatsenyuk is "Yats" and Klitschko is "Klitsch." Pyatt appears to be briefing Nuland for a phone conversation with Klitschko, the purpose of which is to dissuade him from joining the government. Yatsenyuk, for his part, is encouraged to accept, because the former central banker has "the economic experience, the governing experience." Nuland then switches to the subject of international mediation, breaking the news that a U.N. envoy, Dutch diplomat Robert Serry, was soon to visit Kiev. "So that would be great, I think, to glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue it, and, you know, f--ck the EU," she says.
"Exactly," Pyatt agrees. He then says the U.S. diplomats should work on "some kind of outreach to Yanukovych."
A YouTube user calling himself Lev Nikolayevich Myshkin, after the main character in Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, posted the video on Feb. 5. It got no attention, however, until Dmitry Loskutov tweeted the link at 11:35 a.m. on Feb. 6. This appears to be the oldest mention of the video on Twitter. Loskutov is an aide to Deputy Prime Minister Dmitri Rogozin, Russia's former envoy to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, who is now in charge of the Russian defense industry. Rogozin weighed in with a gleeful tweet, commenting: "My former colleague from my time in Brussels, V. Nuland, has always had an active civic stand, especially on the EU."
The Russian propaganda take on the video can be gleaned from the coverage it received on state-owned Russia Today channel. "In the conversation, it sounds like the two officials are playing a game of chess, strategizing on how to put together the government of another country," commented the channel's Marina Portnaya.
The way things turned out in Kiev suggests that is wrong, even laughable. Both Yatsenyuk and Klitschko declined Yanukovych's offer, under pressure from protesters insisting that heir months-long vigil on the streets of Kiev was not about securing ministerial posts for a few opposition legislators. A stalemate ensued with Yanukovych dismissing Mykola Azarov's government and appointing Serhiy Arbuzov, a close friend of his older son, Alexander Yanukovych, as acting prime minister. The parties are now bogged down in useless talks as protesters lick their wounds and prepare to repel more attacks by riot police. International mediation by any organization, be it the U.N. or the EU, has not led to any tangible results.
That politicians in most countries are happy to talk to top U.S. diplomats such as Nuland and Pyatt should surprise no one. Whether those politicians listen to any advice given is another matter altogether. The tapped conversation, if genuine, also reveals that the U.S. diplomats only had ready access to the more easily available parties in Ukraine's crisis -- pretty much anyone who wants to talk to the opposition leaders, from rank-and-file demonstrators to journalists, can. Nuland and Pyatt, however, did not appear to have an open channel to Yanukovych.
If anything, the recording proves that no outside force controls what is happening in Ukraine. Nor does any one insider or group. The interests of Yanukovych, clans within his Party of Regions, the various opposition leaders and street protest factions diverge so widely that bringing them together would be a mammoth task even for someone with supreme diplomatic skills. Judging by Nuland's profane outburst against the EU on a telephone connection she must have known was vulnerable to tapping, she does not have them.
The U.S. response has concentrated on the apparent Russian origin of the clip. State Department spokeswoman Jennifer Psaki called it "a new low in Russian tradecraft." Rogozin had fun with that in a sarcastic tweet: "Well, naturally it's all the Russian's fault for being the first to publish the YouTube link on Twitter." Instead of blaming Russian spies, whose presence in Ukraine also should surprise no one, the U.S. should apologize for Nuland's outburst against equally impotent European allies, and point out that the recording confirms the innocuous, if ineffective, nature of U.S. involvement in Kiev.
(Leonid Bershidsky writes on Russia, Europe and technology for Bloomberg View. Follow him on Twitter.)
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