On a sweltering Tuesday afternoon in June, John McCain was working himself into a lather about the Obama administration’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine.
“It’s so shameful and disgraceful that it’s hard for me to restrain myself,” said the Arizona Republican, ticking off a list of perceived White House missteps.
He was just about to finish an analogy comparing Barack Obama to Neville Chamberlain when a reporter interjected with a new question: What did the senator think about the top U.S. diplomat assigned to the conflict?
McCain paused, and his demeanor changed dramatically.
“I’m a great admirer of hers,” he said of Victoria Nuland, America’s most senior diplomat for Europe. “She’s very, very smart.”
McCain’s gushing approval of Nuland is shared by many on Capitol Hill, including large numbers of Democrats. But there’s one place where Nuland is far more polarizing: Europe, the very continent where her job requires her to cultivate strong and trusting relationships.
In interviews with Foreign Policy, her European colleagues have described her as “brash,” “direct,” “forceful,” “blunt,” “crude,” and occasionally, “undiplomatic.” But they also stressed that genuine policy differences account for their frustrations with her — in particular, her support for sending arms to Ukraine as the country fends off a Russian-backed rebellion, a policy not supported by the White House.
“She doesn’t engage like most diplomats,” said a European official. “She comes off as rather ideological.”
The great irony of Victoria Nuland is that the same qualities that make her a superstar in Washington make her controversial in Europe at a time when transatlantic ties are under incredible strain.
Nuland, a career foreign service officer, is the State Department’s point person on the Ukrainian crisis and the boss of all 50 U.S. embassies in Europe and Eurasia. As the fighting in eastern Ukraine killed more than 6,400 people and plunged U.S.-Russia relations to levels unseen since the Cold War, Nuland has spent months shuttling across the Atlantic in an attempt to forge — and maintain — a united Western response to Moscow’s aggression.
Her popularity in Washington stems in part from the aggressive rhetoric she employs to castigate the Russians and push the Europeans to take a harder line.
In March, she accused Moscow of conducting a “reign of terror” in Crimea and eastern Ukraine. Days earlier, she became the first U.S. official to publicly use the term “invasion” to describe the Kremlin’s transgressions in the country. She has repeatedly blasted “Russia and its separatist puppets” for committing “unspeakable violence and pillage” and has vowed to make Russian President Vladimir Putin pay for any further escalation. During congressional testimony, she has compared the process of negotiating with the Europeans to herding “cats.” And last year, a leaked audio recording famously caught her saying “fuck the EU” during a phone call with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“She doesn’t tend to pull her punches,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who prides himself on his progressive foreign policy credentials. “I’m an enormous fan of ‘Toria.”
Despite her unassuming title — assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs — Nuland has been a major player in U.S. foreign policy for years, working for both neoconservative Republicans and liberal Democrats. During former President George W. Bush’s administration, she was Vice President Dick Cheney’s principal deputy national security advisor. Before assuming her current job, she worked under Hillary Clinton as the State Department spokeswoman.
“As the most prominent member of the unique — some might even say improbable … Dick Cheney-Hillary Clinton Alumni Association, she has earned the trust and confidence of Democrats and Republicans alike,” Secretary of State John Kerry said at Nuland’s swearing-in ceremony in September 2013.
Because of her strong ties to Clinton and powerful Republicans, many observers expect Nuland’s career arc to bend upwards regardless of which party triumphs in 2016, making her an important diplomat to watch out for.
First, though, she has a minefield of challenges to navigate through in her current position.
While European complaints about Nuland’s diplomatic style are genuine and fairly ubiquitous, she has also been dealt an incredibly difficult hand.
Nuland frequently meets with senior European leaders who outrank her and delivers messages they often don’t want to hear.
In a crisis of this magnitude, many of these delicate tasks would traditionally get kicked up to Nuland’s boss, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, Wendy Sherman. But Sherman has been saddled with the momentous job of leading the U.S. negotiating team in the Iran nuclear talks, giving Nuland an unusual degree of latitude and influence for an assistant secretary.
This significant level of autonomy has led her interlocutors to fixate on her as a driving force of hawkishness within the Obama administration, whether fairly or not.
“Many Europeans, and certainly Moscow, hate Nuland, which is just one more reason why her political base on Capitol Hill adores her,” said a congressional aide familiar with the issue.
In Europe, Nuland is widely presumed to be the leading advocate for shipping weapons to Kiev — a proposal bitterly opposed by the Germans, Hungarians, Italians, and Greeks who fear setting off a wider conflict with Moscow.
The White House has also argued against providing lethal assistance to Kiev because Moscow enjoys what’s known as “escalation dominance,” or the ability to outmatch and overwhelm Ukrainian forces regardless of the type of assistance the United States would provide.
Nuland is not the only Obama administration official who has supported arming Ukraine, but in Europe, she has become the face of this policy, thanks to a pivotal event that occurred in February during the annual Munich Security Conference.
At the outset of the forum, Nuland and Gen. Philip Breedlove delivered an off-the-record briefing to the visiting U.S. delegation, which included about a dozen U.S. lawmakers in the House and Senate. Unbeknownst to Nuland and Breedlove, a reporter from the German newspaper Bild snuck into the briefing room and published a report that reverberated across Germany but gained little to no traction in English-language media.
The report said Nuland and Breedlove were pressing U.S. lawmakers to support the shipment of defensive weapons to Ukraine and belittling the diplomatic efforts German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande were making in Russia.
“We would not be in the position to supply so many weapons that Ukraine could defeat Russia. That is not our goal,” Breedlove was quoted as saying. “But we must try to raise the price for Putin on the battlefield.”
Nuland reportedly added, “I would like to urge you to use the word ‘defensive system’ to describe what we would be delivering against Putin’s offensive systems,” according to a translation.
A senior administration official disputed this characterization of the briefing, but one of the lawmakers in the room at the time, Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.), corroborated the Bild article in an interview with Foreign Policy. “When I was at the Munich conference, the senior administration officials that spoke to the U.S. delegation made very clear that they were advocating for the provision of defensive weapons for Ukraine,” he said.
The U.S. official told FP that the gathering had more to do with “calming Europe down” about the policy options that the White House was considering than anything else. The official said the briefers made “clear that no decisions had been made” and tried to “dispel some of the wilder rumors circulating in Europe that, for example, the [United States] was considering becoming co-combatants in Ukraine.”
Whatever the nuances, the takeaway for many Europeans after the conference was that Nuland gave short shrift to their concerns about provoking an escalation with Russia and was confusingly out of sync with Obama.
“Nuland has been a hardliner and supporter of arms delivery,” read an article in the respected German news magazine Der Spiegel. “Unlike her President Obama, she has a clear idea of what must be done.”
The White House declined to comment for this article.
When asked about Nuland’s early advocacy for arms to Ukraine, State Department spokesman John Kirby offered an unequivocal defense of her. “The secretary has enormous respect for Assistant Secretary Nuland and counts on her advice and insight during this critical time in transatlantic relations, especially in shoring up our support for Ukraine,” he told FP.
Although clearly at odds with the White House, U.S. lawmakers — in both parties — believe Nuland has been saying all the right things.
“It’s refreshing to hear it,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the top Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee who also attended the Munich conference. “I think we should be providing Ukraine with defensive weapons. I don’t buy the argument that Russia can always beat Ukraine … I think that’s a defeatist attitude.”
Engel’s hawkish predisposition is shared by a vast majority of lawmakers in the House and Senate.
In December, Democrats and Republicans in Congress overwhelmingly passed legislation authorizing the president to provide lethal aid to Ukraine, including ammunition, troop-operated surveillance drones, and antitank weapons. The president agreed to sign the legislation only because it did not require him to provide the aid, which he has yet to do. Trying a new tactic this week, the Senate included a provision in its military policy bill that would withhold half of the $300 million for Ukrainian security assistance until 20 percent of the funds is spent on lethal weaponry for Kiev. The provision is opposed by the White House for fear that lethal assistance would only serve to escalate the bloodshed in Ukraine and hand Putin an excuse for further violent transgressions.
While policy differences like this one account for some of the bad blood between Nuland and her European counterparts, her tough style clearly plays a role as well.
“Some tend to perceive Nuland’s assertiveness as a bit too over the edge, at least for the muffled European diplomatic environment,” said Federiga Bindi, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.
Her defenders say Nuland’s brand of tough love is exactly what’s needed to enforce Washington’s response to Russia following the annexation of Crimea last year.
The White House strategy has been to unite Europe against Russia through a mix of punitive, but non-military, measures. That has included: U.S. and EU economic sanctions targeting Russia’s state energy, arms and financial sectors announced last September; kicking Russia out of the G-8; and discouraging allied leaders from inviting Putin to their capitals or visiting Russia at the head of state level.
Keeping Europe united is no easy task.
On the issue of deterring Russia militarily, Europeans are all over the place. The Baltic States favor a more aggressive response, while Italy and Greece seek a more diplomatic route. Meanwhile, Germany and France, the two most powerful EU countries, have been seeking a solution somewhere in the middle.
On sanctions, European leaders have been more reluctant than the United States because their countries have lucrative and long-standing business relationships with Russian firms. Already, French agricultural exports and Italy’s tourism industry have lost significant business due to the sanctions policy.
When European countries fall out of line, they have to answer to Nuland, which doesn’t always go over well.
In mid-March, for instance, Nuland traveled to Rome after the prime minister of Italy, Matteo Renzi, met with Putin in the first official trip to Moscow by any major European leader since Russia annexed Crimea.
The Italians had defied the Western policy of isolating Putin. Nuland, the first Washington visitor to Italy since the Renzi trip, had the difficult job of playing enforcer. According to one diplomatic source, the intensity of Nuland’s scolding left her Italian interlocutors offended and angry.
A senior administration official insists it was a message that needed to be delivered. “The administration’s policy has been to discourage allied leaders from inviting Putin to visit their capitals and from visiting Russia at the head of state level,” said the official. “Senior officials at every level in the U.S. government had been expressing concern to the Italians about Renzi’s plans.”
Acknowledging the tense standoff, the official added that Nuland’s message was conveyed “with disappointment, not anger.”
This sort of tough love is exactly what American officials cherish about Nuland.
“She tells it the way it is,” said Engel. “It’s not guarded. It’s not phony.”
A fluent speaker of French and Russian, she has been known to attribute her penchant for cursing to the months she spent learning Russian on a Soviet fishing trawler in her 20s.
The daughter of the late Sherwin Nuland, a renowned Yale University professor, and the wife of Robert Kagan, a prominent neoconservative writer, Nuland has long been surrounded by powerful and evocative communicators.
Kagan, a co-founder of the Project for the New American Century and one of the foremost boosters for the disastrous U.S. invasion of Iraq, is no stranger to ruffling the feathers of Europeans. In the early aughts, he penned a widely-read essay about the growing split between the United States and Europe on foreign policy. When it comes to military force, he said, “Americans are from Mars, and Europeans are from Venus.”
At her swearing-in ceremony, Nuland referenced Kagan’s essay in a heartfelt testament to their marriage. “He is my Mars, he is my Venus, he is my planet Earth,” she said.
Last year, Nuland and Kagan told Politico that they fell in love “talking about democracy and the role of America in the world” on one of their initial dates.
Because of her marriage to Kagan, most Europeans believe she’s a Republican, but her hawkish approach to Russia isn’t entirely unique within the Obama administration.
According to U.S. officials, other senior Americans have privately indicated support for arming Ukraine as well, including Kerry, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Vice President Joe Biden, and her Munich briefing partner, Gen. Breedlove. Carter has even aired his preference publicly. “I very much incline in that direction because I think we need to support the Ukrainians in defending themselves,” Carter told the Senate Armed Services Committee in February.
Two other key voices in the administration on Ukraine are Charles Kupchan, the senior director for European affairs at the National Security Council, and Celeste Wallander, senior director for Russia and Eurasia. The views of Kupchan and Wallander are said to derive heavily from their academic work. Kupchan specifically is a longtime NATO skeptic whose doubts about a military solution to the crisis are an important intellectual bulwark against some of the more hawkish proposals filtering through the National Security Council.
Despite the fact that Nuland is not outside the mainstream of many State Department views on the Ukraine crisis, her reputation as the most pugnacious of hawks isn’t likely to subside in the minds of Europeans anytime soon. In many ways, that’s because she’ll never live down the moment that made her famous: the leaking of a private phone call of her disparaging the European Union in 2014 as the political standoff between the Ukrainian opposition and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych unfurled.
Ironically, that phone call is one of the best-known, but least understood aspects of Nuland’s tenure as assistant secretary.
Contrary to widespread reports at the time, Nuland’s expletive had nothing to do with frustrations over the EU’s posture toward the Yanukovych regime or Nuland’s general view of the 28-nation bloc, according to diplomatic sources on both sides of the Atlantic.
The F-bomb heard ’round the world was actually the result of a much more technical disagreement dating back to early January 2014. At the time, hundreds of thousands of protesters at Maidan square had been calling for the resignation of Yanukovych after the Moscow-friendly president reneged on a promise to sign an association agreement with the European Union, among many other grievances.
U.S. officials had been pressing Yanukovych to throw out the current regime and establish a technical government that included leaders from the opposition. After several weeks of resistance, Yanukovych relented and offered the opposition two senior slots in a new government, a major diplomatic breakthrough. Worried about being outplayed by the canny politician, however, the opposition wanted a third party — ideally the EU — to help broker the talks. When the EU refused to commit, Nuland, using language she would come to regret, recommended shoving the Europeans aside and giving the task to the United Nations instead.
“That would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and to have the U.N. help glue it,” said Nuland. “And, you know, fuck the EU.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called Nuland’s phone call “totally unacceptable,” and the State Department later said that Nuland apologized for the remarks to key EU contacts.
Most suspect the audio was leaked by Russian intelligence services in order to drive a wedge between the EU and the United States.
Thus far, that strategy has failed as U.S.-European unity on sanctions remain in place, albeit shakily. On Wednesday, the EU agreed to extend sanctions on Russia for six months, defying an aggressive lobbying campaign by Moscow. Still, the alleged spy craft set the tone for what has been a rocky relationship between Nuland and her European counterparts.
Photo credit: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Like this article? Read an unlimited number of articles, plus access to our entire 47-year printed archive, the FP App, and the Digital Magazine when you subscribe to FP Premium for just 99 cents!