A diplomat’s private conversation hasn't dominated this much headline space since WikiLeaks dumped reams of State Department cables all over the Internet in 2010.
A day after her reported F-word heard ‘round the world, Victoria Nuland on Friday issued apologies privately to officials within the European Union. A video surfaced online apparently featuring a recording of the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs discussing the ongoing turmoil in Ukraine and offering a disparaging appraisal of the EU's effectiveness in helping to solve the crisis.
The gaffe has been met with harsh criticism from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called the contents of the released phone call “totally unacceptable.”
The State Department has attempted to redirect some of the backlash, indicating that the phone call may have been tapped by the Russian government and released to manufacture a diplomatic incident. When asked about prospective Russian involvement, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the incident reflects “a new low in Russian tradecraft in terms of publicizing [and] posting.”
Russian government aide Dmitry Loskutov was among the first to post the video online, leading some to believe he did so on behalf of state intelligence services. The Russian government has subsequently denied such accusations.Members of the diplomatic community, renowned for emphasizing the importance of private dialogue in international negotiations, are waiting to see what happens next.
Johnnie Carson, a former assistant secretary of state, cautions against believing any conversation can remain truly private in the 21st century, and warns of subsequent manipulation.
“Diplomacy is best done in a discreet and private fashion,” he says. Carson served under four presidents, and held posts as ambassador to Kenya, Uganda and Zimbabwe. He agreed to speak generally about the nuances of diplomatic communications following the release of Nuland’s phone call.
“We live in a world in which privacy has been compromised in more ways than any of us might have imagined five, 10 or 15 years ago,” he says.
Diplomatic correspondence and conversations are generally sensitive and thought to be privileged, Carson says. But the U.S. foreign service and other American diplomats operate in a world in which there is increasing access to electronic, digital and verbal information.
“Because of this, one has to recognize that there is going to be always the possibility that information can be picked up, distorted and used for intentions that [they] were not originally designed for,” he says. “We have responsibilities we must carry out. And those responsibilities require communications. There has to be a level of confidence in the communication of that discussion and the medium over which that communication takes place.”
Carson declined to comment on this specific incident or what it might mean for future U.S. relations with Ukraine, Russia or the EU. He would only say, “Victoria Nuland is an outstanding American diplomat.”
Frederic Hof, a former ambassador now with the Atlantic Council, says this episode is "one of those professional embarrassments that happens to the best of us."
"I'm sure that Toria – an intensely competent and conscientious professional – was and is mortified," Hof, who served as special adviser for transition in Syria under President Barack Obama, says in an email. He cautions against speaking frankly with close colleagues or reporting back to headquarters using communication networks that aren't secure. "Everyone makes mistakes. Yet unless one wants to see one's words broadcast publicly, one does not communicate sensitive information on an open telephone line or a Blackberry. Every once in awhile this lesson gets re-learned in a very awkward way."
As the speed of communications increases in the 21st century, so must the ability of a diplomat to negotiate swiftly.
"In the ideal world, when somebody at Assistant Secretary Nuland's level talks to an ambassador, you'd like to have secure communications," says Steven Pifer, a career foreign service officer who served as ambassador to Ukraine under President Bill Clinton. "But in the real world, there are fast-breaking events."
Nuland's reported conversation was likely on a cellphone, Pifer guesses, and such communications are not difficult for surveillance agencies to pick up. He suspects either Russian or Ukrainian intelligence services likely leaked the call to promote the story they have tried to propagate – that the uprisings in Ukraine are not organic but rather spurred on by U.S. interference.
Pifer says Nuland's "colorful" reference to the EU likely stemmed from a common frustration from American diplomats. The 28-nation organization can be a powerful force when it is able to reach a consensus, but that can be a difficult proposition. EU members likely understood this, Pifer says.
"My guess is this is not going to do major damage," Pifer says. "This will blow over in a day or so."
Violent protests and clashes with security forces have shaken Ukraine since demonstrations began in November. Activists have blasted President Viktor Yanukovych for not signing new economic accords with the EU, considered by many there to be the key to turning around Ukraine’s economic strife.
Observers believe Yanukovych’s reticence may stem from pressure from Russia, which has offered $15 billion in bailout money to assist the former Soviet nation.
The civil unrest is likely far from over, according to an appraisal from EU envoy Catherine Ashton after she met with the Ukrainian president this week.
Nuland remains in her current position, and told reporters at a press briefing Friday that the released phone call was "impressive tradecraft," according to Ukraine’s Kyiv Post.
She declined to comment on specifics of the reported phone call, but noted that "the audio was very clear.”