Victoria Nuland, the Assistant Secretary of State whose intemperate remarks about the European Union were secretly recorded and released on YouTube (allegedly by the Russians), probably wouldn’t have received high marks from Emily Post. But if Nuland’s wording is crude, her analysis is essentially correct, as yet another secretly recorded conversation reveals—this one between Helga Schmid, a representative of EU High Commissioner Catherine Ashton, and the EU Ambassador in Ukraine:
HS: “I just wanted to tell you one more thing in confidence. The Americans are going around and saying we’re too soft, while they’re moving more firmly toward sanctions. […] Well, we’re not soft! We’re about to issue a very strongly worded statement about Bulatov!“
Newsflash to the EU: A very strongly worded statement rarely accomplishes much in the realm of international diplomacy, and it certainly is not going to persuade Russia to abandon its quest to become a great power. Baguettes are no good in knife fights, as we’re fond of saying.One can, however, hardly blame the Europeans for being a little offended by Ms Nuland. We all have our moments of frustration, but in this world of phone taps and leaks diplomats must watch what they say. A good rule for all of us: if you don’t want it repeated on the front page of the newspaper, don’t say it in the first place.More substantively, the Obama administration must carry a lot of the blame for the mess in Ukraine. This problem has been brewing for some time; if the EU brought a baguette to a knife fight, the US until very recently wasn’t even at the party. The western powers needed to do much more to coordinate their approach to Ukraine, and there are no signs that the Obama administration was any more prescient or thoughtful than the Europeans Ms Nuland dismissed. Instead, the administration has been sending out signals that likely strengthened Putin’s belief that he could press Ukraine hard without a strong western response.But regrets belong to the past. If the US and the EU want to snipe at each other about who screwed up in Ukraine, both sides have all the material they could possibly want. It would be much more useful to talk about what happens next—and about how the US and the EU can work together for the outcome they both seek.They will need to move fast. Putin is in a hurry and Ukraine means the world to him. In the past, Russia has managed to overcome its economic and military inferiority by acting quickly and decisively while its opponents dither and edit position papers. Both the EU and the US have more power than the Russian Federation, but Putin has been running rings around the slow moving, fuzzy thinking behemoths of the west. Both the US and the EU are being tested here; so far, neither has much to brag about.