As many of you know there was a conversation between two American diplomats leaked to the press this week. The conversation was between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland (C) and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.
Nuland: OK... one more wrinkle for you Geoff. [A click can be heard] I can't remember if I told you this, or if I only told Washington this, that when I talked to Jeff Feltman [United Nations Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs] this morning, he had a new name for the UN guy Robert Serry did I write you that this morning?
Pyatt: Yeah I saw that.
Nuland: OK. He's now gotten both Serry and [UN Secretary General] Ban Ki-moon to agree that Serry could come in Monday or Tuesday. So that would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, **** the EU.
Pyatt: No, exactly. And I think we've got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude, that the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it...
Now of course there are the geopolitical considerations to be discussed resulting from this. Some leaders in the EU expressed outrage, and of course they weren’t really outraged they just have to express it to appear like they are doing something. There were a few notable exceptions.
The office of EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said that they would not comment on “allegedly intercepted communication as a position of principle.”
“Intercepted private conversations aren’t part of the toolbox that we use to assist Ukraine,” said a spokesperson for Barroso.
The German newspaper Der Spiegel online published an opinion column titled “Relax, Europe.” Stating:
“Europe should simply laugh about the American F-word. Some humor would do no harm to the transatlantic relationship at the moment.”
Those are public statements; let me assure everyone that no leader in Europe is upset at the US or Assistant Secretary of State Nuland. In private, people say all kinds of things, all of you hearing this show, I am sure that at several points in your life, you have privately expressed frustration with even your best friends on occasion. Everybody knows that.
The curious thing about this is how it happened.
American officials immediately pointed the finger at Russian intelligence for the leak, Nuland herself referred to quote “remarkable tradecraft”, which is political and diplomatic speak for spying and intelligence actions. That is what I want to talk about because that is the really interesting aspect of this.
I think she is right and I think it is pretty obvious that this intercept and leak is the work of the Russians. They are the ones who have motive.
Russian intelligence is mostly conducted out of three agencies, the FSB, GRU and SVR. One of these three would be responsible for intercepting this call and disseminating it. My guess here is that this is the work of the GRU or Glavnye Raz-vedie-vatel-noye Uprav-linye which translates to main intelligence directorate.
But why would they do this now? In some ways it doesn’t seem to make sense. First of all, this is yet another blow to the narrative that had been set by Edward Snowden when seeking Asylum in Russia. A few weeks ago I noted how the problems Russia was having with ensuring that the Sochi Olympics were secure from terrorists was one problematic area for them because Snowden’s argument is that the US is going too far in its surveillance and espionage efforts against terrorism. If Russia is having problems dealing with terrorism but harboring Snowden, that is pretty hypocritical.
Now we have another instance of hypocrisy. One of the things that Snowden leaked was the idea that the US was listening in on the phone conversations of various diplomats. That is supposed to be bad. Now we have an example of Russia doing the same thing, yet they are giving Snowden asylum for leaking that the US did it.
That is some pretty serious hypocrisy.
Why would the Russian’s out themselves as hypocrites like this? While you are thinking that over, I should point out that countries usually do not advertise efforts by their intelligence agencies to the extent that this phone call intercept and dissemination did. That’s part of the whole point of covert operations. They are supposed to stay secret. You don’t want the public knowing, you don’t want your adversaries knowing. You can bet that this very second, US intelligence agencies are conducting a thorough investigation of how the Russians did this and are building new countermeasures and procedures into how diplomats and other officials do business.
So in terms of both keeping the US looking bad with respect to Russia on surveillance, this hurts Russia and it also potentially weakens Russia’s ability to eavesdrop on certainly the United States and perhaps other countries and groups in the future.
So again, why would they do this?
To me, the answer is obvious. I think the Russians are really worried about the situation in Ukraine.
A Russian expat friend just back from a trip to Russia said to me a week and a half ago, Steve, you have no idea how serious the Russians are about keeping complete control over the government and political situation in Ukraine. They will do everything they can to keep their guy in power over there and prevent Ukraine from joining the European Union.
The intercept of this phone call is confirmation of that as far as I am concerned. To give you all some more background, Russia’s preferred Ukranian candidate, Viktor Yanukovych was elected to the Presidency in Ukraine in 2010 and as of that moment, all progress towards Ukraine joining the European Union stopped. Prior to this, two Ukranian leaders, Victor Yushenko and Yulia Tymoshenko had been pursuing not only EU membership for Ukraine, but NATO membership for Ukraine.
Upon assuming power, Yanukovych’s governing of Ukraine can be described as pretty much exactly how Putin wants him to govern Ukraine. Ukraine has become a satellite of Russia under Yanukovych. EU and NATO membership for Ukraine is something that Putin does not want to see happen because if and when that happens, Russia’s influence over Ukraine will be weakened permanently.
In November of 2013, Yanukovych formally rejected an accord with the European Union in favor of stronger ties to Russia. Ever since then, protests have erupted in Ukraine which turned violent in January. The BBC reports that this is the worst unrest in the country since Ukraine’s independence from the former Soviet Union in 1991.
The pro-European Union rallies have drawn crowds in Ukraine’s capitol of Kiev numbering in the hundreds of thousands of people. Putin fears losing control of Ukraine and he hates that the US is playing a role in trying to mediate a solution to the crisis.
That is why Putin ordered the Russian intelligence services to risk exposing themselves by intercepting and releasing this phone conversation. It is a move motivated by desperation by a man who wants to maintain control of Ukraine and fears he is about to lose it.
In case any more evidence is needed about how seriously Russia views its control of Ukraine, curious things have happened to both prior Ukranian leaders who wanted to forge closer relationships between Ukraine and Europe and the US.
I mentioned Victor Yushenko earlier. In 2004 in the middle of an election against the current President of Ukraine, Yanukovich, Mr. Yushenko was poisoned with the Dioxin Tetrachlorodibenzodioxin. Mr. Yushenko won that election and became President of Ukraine. On September 27, 2009 Yushchenko said in an interview that the testimony of three men who were at a dinner in 2004 at which he believes he was poisoned is crucial to finishing the investigation, and he claimed these men were in Russia. And, surprise, surprise, Ukrainian prosecutors said Russia has refused to extradite one of the men, the former deputy chief of Ukraine's security service, Volodymyr Satsyuk, because he holds both Russian and Ukrainian citizenship.
That is the experience of one leader who wanted to take Ukraine into a closer relationship with the EU and the United States. Another such leader, Yulia Tymoshenko, the former Prime Minister of Ukraine was thrown in jail after Yanukovich came to power and her trial and imprisonment is viewed by many in the international community, not least of which the Danish Helsinki committee as a politically motivated imprisonment. The European Court on Human Rights said in an April 30, 2013 judgment that Tymoshenko’s arrest had been politically motivated and her rights had been violated. She has sat in prison since 2011 under a seven year sentence.
Russia particularly has it in for Ms Tymoshenko because of a role she played in a gas dispute between Ukraine and Russia back in 2009 where it is said she directly angered Putin.
So if you want to understand how ruthless Putin is willing to be with regards to keeping control over Ukraine, just look at what has happened to the two highest profile Ukranian Leaders who wanted to move Ukraine from a Russian centered foreign policy, to a European Union centered foreign policy,
Once you understand the background, what happened here and why becomes much more clear. This phone intercept and its release was part of a deliberate plan to hinder the US efforts to mediate the Ukraine crisis and the Russians hoped it would put a wedge between US and the EU precisely when they should be working together on Ukraine to help remove her from Russian domination. Accomplishing that goal was worth it to Putin even though it would expose Russian intelligence efforts and make him and Russia look like a hypocrite in the Snowden case to anyone who was paying attention.
The crisis in Ukraine is ongoing with the USA Today reporting on Thursday that Ukraine protesters are telling reporters that they are concerned that Russia will intervene militarily at some point. I’ve heard this myself from several sources that the Russians are contemplating military intervention in Ukraine after the Olympics are over.
Again, this is a big issue to Russia and they are willing to pull out all the stops, all of the tricks and everything else to get their way here. What no one in the US or Europe should do is succumb to the dirty tricks that Russia and Putin are utilizing here to try and drive a wedge between the US and Europe. The US and Europe need to work together to ensure the wishes of the people of Ukraine to have closer ties to the EU are realized.
We’ll be right back.