‘F*** the EU.”
Behind closed doors and away from the public smiles, states act in their own self-interest.
America and the EU disagree about how to restrain Vladimir Putin’s policy in Ukraine. And so the U.S. is sidestepping its allies. That much is obvious, from the details recently made public of a phone call between U.S. diplomats Victoria Nuland (the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs) and Geoffrey Pyatt (the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine). What’s also near-certain is that Russian intelligence played a role in the intercept of this call.
Let’s be clear: When a U.S. ambassador speaks to an assistant secretary of state, especially on a concern as important as this one, that conversation happens on a secure line — unless the intention is to be heard. Therefore, the fact that this call was intercepted and copied with great audio clarity is very telling. To do so requires a combination of awareness (to target the call), skill (to intercept the call successfully), and resources (to collect, process, and reproduce the conversation). Whatever the Russian government might claim, pro-Ukrainian-government “Titushky” groups are mostly drunken street thugs. The Ukrainian domestic-intelligence service (SBU) may have been responsible, but even then, many (including very senior) SBU officers are sympathetic to Russian interests — the Lubyanka legacy remains firm. Most compelling is the fact that the Russian government orchestrated the call’s publication.
And what’s also pretty evident is Russia’s strategic motivation for this release: to exploit fissures in the U.S.-EU relationship. As German chancellor Angela Merkel’s angry reaction to the Nuland call illustrates, the relationship remains strained in the wake of the Snowden revelations. The Russians hope that by widening the gap between the U.S. and its European allies, they can consolidate their own position in Ukraine. They fear a Western policy consensus in support of the opposition.
That takes care of Russia’s capability and motivation.
Still, the Nuland–Pyatt leak doesn’t just tell us about U.S.-EU relations. It affords us a deep insight into the intelligence modus operandi of the Russian government.
At a basic level, this is simply another example of the Russian intelligence services’ favorite hobby — embarrassing their Western counterparts. Whether in the Russian Federal Security Service’s parading of a purported CIA officer last May, or their memorable excitement over finding an “MI6 rock” in 2006, or their sustained use of barely veiled “honey traps,” the Russians enjoy being aggressive. At liaison meetings, for example, Russian intelligence officers are renowned for their one-way flow of information.
To some degree, this aggression flows from Russia’s embarrassment over notable intelligence failures (especially on the part of the SVR, Russia’s CIA). But it’s deeper than that. Where Western intelligence services like to remain in the shadows — away from the public gaze (mostly) — the Russians use intelligence operations to build their reputation and in doing so assert Russian strategic interests. The Russians are aware that by leaking this phone call, they’re broadcasting their success in intercepting sensitive communications. They’re also teasing the State Department with a more subtle message — “You don’t know how long we’ve been listening, or where else we’re doing so.” Of course, it’s possible that the U.S. recently discovered the Russian operation and stopped it and that the Russians therefore felt they had nothing to lose by going public. However, assuming that wasn’t the case, by showing their hand, the Russians indicate that they are aware the U.S. will now move to harden its communications. In essence, by advertising their theft from this intelligence gold mine, they’ve knowingly allowed the U.S. to better protect it.
Whether the U.S. realized it had been intercepted or not is ultimately beside the point. What really matters is that this incident proves the distance between the “reset” narrative and the reality of Russian security policies.
And let’s be clear about something else. This is Russian intelligence playing nice. Befitting its KGB legacy, Russia has a special affinity for irradiating or otherwise poisoning its adversaries. In Ukraine, allegations of crucifixion have even been leveled against Russian spooks.
Led by King Putin (the man who put Russia’s NSA under his direct control), there’s a furious arrogance at work here. And it’s perfectly encapsulated by Russia’s distaste for intelligence cooperation at the 2014 Olympics. Just as he preferred corruption to cost control, Putin, rather than seek foreign intelligence assistance, prefers to roll the dice.
The Soviet Union might be gone, but Russian intelligence remains ice cold.