Belmont Club

The Emperor Has No Clothes

In late January, four former U.S. ambassadors to the Ukraine penned an open letter in the New York Times. In it they asked the leaders of the West to stop Ukrainian president Yanukovych while restraining immoderate actions from the opposition. They wrote:


Ukraine is on the verge of spinning out of control. A pro-European protest that began more than two months ago in Kiev’s central square has flared into broad, angry opposition to the authoritarian policies of President Viktor F. Yanukovych. If the United States and European Union wish to encourage a peaceful resolution, they must use their leverage now. Otherwise the situation could degenerate further, to the point where the West will be no more than a spectator.

The first days of February saw John Kerry meeting with Ukranian oppositionists to express their support. At about the same time the Obama administration began to negotiate with Congress on the possibility of imposing sanctions on the Ukraine in order to pressure that government “in response to the bloodshed touched off by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to rebuff a long-awaited trade deal with the European Union.”

Two days ago the US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, announced his resignation. His departure was widely regarded as signalling the failure of the “reset” policy which he advocated. The Post wrote:

McFaul never wavered in his defense of the “reset” despite the increasingly rocky trail of U.S.-Russian relations in recent years. In a blog post titled “It’s Time, My Friend, It’s Time,” written in Russian and English, which he said would be his last as ambassador, he listed what he argued were the reset’s accomplishments.

Among them were the New START accord limiting nuclear arms, the opening of the Northern Distribution Network allowing the United States to send supplies to its troops in Afghanistan by way of Russia, cooperation on Iran and North Korea, and Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization — which Washington wanted on the grounds that it requires Russia to commit to international trade rules.


The situation had been worsening unnoticed, masked by the cascade of other failures and the earnest efforts of the media to spare the administration from embarasment. But the lid is off. Today Russia denounced alleged interference by the U.S. in what they termed the internal affairs of the Ukraine. The Russians leaked the recording of a telephone call from Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, as part of a campaign to persuade the international public that Washington was engaged in adventurism. The Boston Globe describes the background and the tape.

The tit-for-tat has been going on since November, when Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with Europe and accepted a $15 billion loan from Moscow. Months of street protests have threatened his government, and US officials are now trying to broker a settlement — an effort the Kremlin seems determined to block.

The posting of the audiotape represented a striking turn in the situation. It was posted anonymously on YouTube on Tuesday under a Russian headline, “Puppets of Maidan,” a reference to the square in Kiev occupied by protesters, and then tweeted Thursday by a Russian government official who called it “controversial.”

The tape captured a four-minute telephone call on Jan. 25 between Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the ambassador to Ukraine, trading their views of the crisis, their assessments of various opposition leaders, and their frustrations with their European counterparts. At one point, Nuland used an expletive to describe what should happen to the EU.

The two were discussing Yanukovych’s offer to bring two opposition leaders, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, into the government as prime minister and deputy prime minister. The two Americans favored Yatsenyuk, a former economics minister, and Nuland said Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, should not go into government.


The tape was calculated to drive a wedge between the U.S. and its European allies. SFGate reports it as: “‘F–k the EU,’ Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in a private phone call, expressing frustration with European Union efforts to resolve Ukraine’s political turmoil.” The National Interest notes some inflammatory language from the Russians as well.

Meanwhile, tempers are running hotter than ever in Moscow, where Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev is saying that Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych should just get it over with and crush the “putschists.”

USA Today has got more incendiary language to throw into the pile: “Russian adviser threatens Ukraine with military force”:

KIEV, Ukraine — Ukrainian protesters said Thursday they have no doubt Russia will intervene militarily in the unrest here if the Moscow-aligned president gives in to demands for more freedoms and stronger ties to the West.

“Everyone knows that Russia is going to send troops to Ukraine – we have known it for a long time now,” said Kateryna Chorna of Kiev who has regularly taken part in the anti-government protests that started in November.

“And everyone knows that some of (the Russian troops) are already here…

Sergei Glazyev accused the United States on Thursday of funding the Ukrainian “rebels” by as much as $20 million a day for weapons and other supplies. He urged the Ukrainian government to put down the “attempted coup,” or Russia may have to intervene under the terms of a 1994 agreement between the United States and Russia, according to the Ukraine edition of the Russian daily Kommersant.

Glazyev was alluding to the Budapest Memorandum, a treaty in which Ukraine agreed to turn over a nuclear arsenal on its soil left over after the fall of the Soviet Union, of which Ukraine was a part until it dissolved in 1991.

In return, the United States, United Kingdom and Russia, nuclear powers all, guaranteed to respect the independence and the borders of Ukraine and reaffirmed their commitment to seek immediate United Nations Security Council action should Ukraine become a victim of an act of aggression.

The memorandum, which is not binding, refers only to “nuclear aggression” and it requires the signatories to consult each other if other unspecified aggression arises.

Glazyev said the agreement binds Russia and the United States “to intervene when conflicts of this kind arise. And what the Americans are doing now, unilaterally and crudely interfering in the internal affairs of Ukraine, is a clear breach of that treaty.”


With any luck these utterances are simply bluff words employed in a game of diplomatic brinksmanship. But taken at face value the fireworks represent an emergent crisis of very serious proportions, made more shocking by its suddenness; a bolt out of the blue; a dark, threatening thundercloud intruding on the happy-talk diplomacy of the Obama administration. The problems over the Ukraine come almost as a caboose to a long train of disasters, with a disconsolate State Department pulling along a whole string of derelicts — Libya, Syria, Iran, the Arab Spring and growing tension in the Western Pacific — so that the troubles with Russia pass almost unnoticed as the last car in the series.


It’s easy to forget the other points of friction with Russia: Syria, the northern supply route to troops in Afghanistan, Iran, Snowden. Lawmakers who listened to a classified briefing on Snowden’s disclosures were shocked at the extent of the damage he caused.

Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) read his statement rather than making comments on the fly “because of the seriousness of this issue and the sensitivity” of the information they’d just heard.

“Ed Snowden isn’t a whistleblower; he’s a traitor,” McKeon said.

No matter what opinion people hold of the data collection programs, he added, people should be “shocked and outraged to find that a substantial amount of the information has nothing to do with the NSA.”

“He’s given our enemies an edge and put American lives at risk,” said the chairman.

Only a few days ago Russia threatened to quit the START talks as the U.S. deployed an Aegis anti-ballistic missile ship to Spain. All on the back pages, yet taken together one can adventure the thought that a comprehensive failure has overtaken the foreign policy of Barack Obama. The irony is that Obama campaigned on the platform of “smart diplomacy.” But as things have turned out, he was smart only in his own mind.


Under his watch the 70-year-old Pax Americana has fallen apart. Al-Qaeda has flourished. President Benigno Aquino of the Philippines caught the tone of rising concern when he warned, in an interview with the New York Times, that China was doing to Southeast Asia what Nazi Germany did to Central Europe in the late 1930s. “At what point do you say, ‘Enough is enough’? Well, the world has to say it — remember that the Sudetenland was given in an attempt to appease Hitler to prevent World War II.”

But you wouldn’t know it for the panegyrics still being sung by the mainstream media.  To read some papers you would think the world’s biggest problem was gay rights at the Sochi Olympics.

The Sudetenland? Things are not as bad as that yet. But the operative word is “yet.” Someone — perhaps the elders of the Democratic Party — have got to put some competence back in the White House. Someone needs to stop the rot. An administration too inept to roll out a website; too obtuse to do much more than watch a US consulate burned by — dare we say it? — video protesters — such an administration may be overmatched in a contest of brinksmanship with a rival nuclear power.

Barack Obama is in trouble and so are we all. It’s time to stop the Happy Talk and for Republicans and Democrats to face the facts. The emperor has no clothes.

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