Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Where Things Stand as of 11 February 2014: The Significance of the Leak of Asst. Sec. Victoria Nuland’s Conversation

It has been nearly two weeks since I have checked in here.  Like everyone else I have been continuing to wait for something to happen,  With no further progress on a negotiated solution the big question on people’s minds is what Putin will do after Sochi is over, and while I remain skeptical that Putin will intervene militarily, I see no need waste ink on more speculation.

Thus, the most substantive event as far as the news cycle has been was the leak to Youtube of the private conversation between Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State, and the Geoffrey Pyatt, the American ambassador, where they were talking strategy.  My initial impulse was not to comment on it, because, apart from the unwise wording regarding the EU, what I heard showed my tax dollars well spent.  The assessments Nuland and Pyatt made about the main opposition figures was accurate and corresponded to informed opinion among Ukrainians.  Nonetheless, the conversation has clearly raised alarm bells among people sincerely concerned that the U.S. is trying to manipulate events so some explanation seems appropriate.

First, as for the posting of the conversation, it was clearly calculated to do two things: 1) drive a wedge between the US and the EU, and 2) provide evidence to those inclined to distrust US that the Euromaidan protests are illegitimate and essentially part of a western plot to upend the eternally friendly relations between Russia and Ukraine.  Regarding the first point, the leak heartened me, because it suggested to me that, if as assumed Russia was behind the post, it suggested that Russian intentions in Ukraine were limited.  After all, the FSB, Russia’s intelligence agency, is likely well aware that a direct invasion of Ukraine by Russian forces would quickly trump the anger generated by the leak, so its effectiveness as a vehicle to sow discord between the US and the EU depends on Russia not getting overtly involved in Ukraine’s affairs.

Regarding the second, I doubt the leak has changed many minds in Ukraine or Russia. Based on how Russian media has portrayed events in Ukraine, the conversation simply confirmed what Russians already believed, and the same is true in Ukraine, except that most Ukrainians know enough not to believe that the Euromaidan is some kind of foreign intervention.  Likewise, in the west the leak appears to have had the most impact among people who were already suspicious of American foreign policy, often for good reason.  Certainly, hearing the strategizing about which opposition figure should enter a new government through roundtable talks does sound like Nuland and Pyatt are picking winners and losers, which they are, but not necessarily against the will of the Ukrainian people, assuming Ukrainians supporting the Euromaidan were to embrace a roundtable agreement.  

So what does it mean when Nuland and Pyatt say that only Yatseniuk (called Yats in the conversation) should go into a government and that Klychko (called Klych in the conversation)?  First, let us be clear this talk assumes that the new government would continue to operate with Yanukovych still in office as president, an arrangement that can only be accepted with a return to the Constitution of 2004 that limited the role of the president in order.  It is not attempting to remove Klychko from the scene.  Indeed having Yatseniuk as the only opposition leader in the transitional government would keep Klychko’s hands clean.  This would put him in a position where he could run against Yatseniuk in the 2015 elections claiming that Yatseniuk had sold out by cooperating with Yanukovych.  By contrast, insisting that Klychko take a position in any government would put him and Yatseniuk and a relatively even playing field. That might sound like the fairer thing to do, but it would also create conditions where the opposition vote would be more likely to split creating a means for Yanukovych, or his chosen Party of Regions successor to stage a comeback.  Whether Tyahnybok is included in the transitional government is less important, since he does not have a sufficient base in the East to run and win.

So does Nuland and Pyatt’s strategizing run against the interests of the Ukrainian people?  I think not.  At the start of the protests, Yatseniuk and Klychko were arguably on a level playing field for credible leader of an all-Ukrainian opposition.   Neither rose to the occasion in the way that Yulia Tymoshenko did during the Orange Revolution of 2004, however, but Yatseniuk has shown himself somewhat more tone-deaf to the mood of the Maidan than Klychko.  So even though Yatseniuk’s stock has risen some in polls about a prospective raise between him and Yanukovych, which at this point show that even Tyahnybok could win against a match up with Yanukovych, Klychko would still do even better.  Nonetheless, Yatseniuk has much more parliamentary experience and on that basis would likely be the more effective prime minister in the near term.  Further, if the balance of power between the President and Prime Minister return to what they were according to 2004 an electoral agreement where Yatseniuk backed Klychko for president in exchange for carrying on in the office of prime minister would hardly write Yatseniuk out of political power.  Whether the two men trust each other enough to do that is uncertain; although, current evidence suggests they do not.

If there is a weakness in Nuland and Pyatt’s thinking it is the failure to take the Euromaidan protestors into account.  While most Euromaidan activists recognize the need for some kind of negotiated agreement, and recognize that they have to live with the political establishment they have, they have their own goals -- not just the change of government but moves towards making Ukraine “a normal country.,” i.e. one where oligarchs do not have so much power and corruption is greatly reduced.  Sadly, when the Maidan chose representatives to meet with the government none of the leading activists several weeks ago, the opposition leadership managed to control the nominations in ways that excluded any of the Euromaidan’s leaders, of whom there were several possible candidates.  That has meant that when negotiating with Yanukovych they do so without someone to remind them of the mood on the Maidan, something that helped contribute to the outbreake of violence on 19 January.  If I were Nuland and Pyatt, I would be working on convincing the opposition to bring on one of the Euromaidan leaders, who could help smooth the way for a deal to be approved by the increasingly radicalized Euromaidan.  The last thing we need is for a reasonable deal to be reached that militant elements on the Maidan, like Pravyi Sektor (Right Sector) which is at the forefront of the fighting on Hrushevskyi Street, reject with the support of other members of the Maidan. 

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