Vladimir Putin must be in his element. Not only can the Russian president revel in the limelight of the Winter Olympics in Sochi; Russia is also playing host to Edward Snowden, whose revelations about the NSA’s pervasive spying have set Europe against the United States. This week, Putin must have been filled with glee when the transatlantic relationship suffered another bad blow.
It was Victoria Nuland, the American assistant secretary of state for European affairs, whose indiscretion made Putin’s most recent triumph possible. Nuland recently had an open line telephone conversation with Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador to Ukraine. The discussion was recorded and posted on YouTube by an anonymous Russian. It is not known whether Putin was involved, but it certainly seems likely.
In the frank exchange, Nuland dismissed any possibility of Vitali Klitschko, one of Ukraine’s opposition leaders, becoming deputy prime minister in any new technocratic government. She then went on to discuss other potential candidates.
That part of the tape was bad enough. It provided perfect ammunition for the Kremlin to accuse the United States of interfering in Ukraine’s internal affairs. Not that Russia itself is innocent of that charge. Moscow has been interfering in Kiev for years, using Russia’s monopoly as a gas supplier as a powerful political weapon to influence Ukraine’s political and economic direction.
But what was even more damaging were Nuland’s very unladylike remarks toward Europe. “F*** the EU,” Nuland allegedly said, referring to the fact that it should be up to the United States and the United Nations—not the EU—to mediate in the standoff between Ukraine’s opposition and President Viktor Yanukovych.
The reason for wanting to exclude Europe is that Nuland was annoyed, to put it mildly, that the EU was not willing to impose sanctions against Ukraine’s top government and security officials. In her view, the EU is simply too soft as far as Russia’s role in Ukraine is concerned.
The EU is just as vexed with the United States, judging from a leaked conversation between German diplomat Helga Schmid, a top advisor to the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, and Jan Tombiński, the EU’s ambassador to Ukraine.
“We are not soft at all,” Schmid told Tombiński, in response to the American criticisms. “We just don’t go shouting it from the rooftops because it’s much more effective if we act in the way you and I discussed.” In the end, Nuland had to apologize to her EU interlocutors.
Trying to deflect from the content of her remarks against the EU, Nuland implicitly blamed Russia for the leaks. “I am not going to comment on private diplomatic conversations,” Nuland said during a press conference in Kiev last Friday. “But it was pretty impressive tradecraft,” a synonym for spying, she said. “The audio was extremely clear.”
These leaked conversations are good news for Putin, a former professional spy who had the Cold War bred into him. In his view, nothing can benefit Russia like a public transatlantic spat over one of the most important geostrategic issues on Europe’s borders.
Putin is already capitalizing on the fallout of the NSA affair in which Snowden, a former NSA employee, downloaded thousands of classified material and leaked them to the press. Now enjoying asylum in Russia, Snowden is continuing to feed journalists, particularly in Europe, copies of sensitive NSA files.
In Eastern Europe, several officials suspect that Snowden is a Russian stooge. After all, they say, Snowden’s leaks do not involve Russia, or Putin, or Russian spying activities in the United States or Europe. Indeed, Putin has rarely referred to Snowden or the leaks.
But whatever the truth of those suspicions, clearly, the NSA leaks play into Putin’s hand, given the outcry they have caused in many Western European countries.
Political elites know that governments spy on each other. But the extent of the NSA’s spying and the complicity of big U.S. companies like Google has raised many questions in Europe. The EU’s top concerns involve privacy rights, data protection, how the United States filters that information, and what it is being used for.
Both the NSA affair and Nuland’s outburst tap into a residual anti-Americanism in Western Europe that U.S. diplomats, pro-American foundations, and EU leaders have yet to find a way to counter. This feeling runs so deep that it may endanger negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or TTIP—talks that had carried high hopes of renewing the transatlantic bond.
If TTIP were to fail, the consequences would be grave. Europeans and Americans would have squandered an important opportunity to build a new liberal Western order together. The fissure in their relationship would become even deeper. Putin must be very pleased with developments, so far.