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Uber Russia-hawk Victoria Nuland rises to acting deputy secretary of state

She's done as much as anyone to sour US-Russia ties; now, she is one of Washington’s top diplomats.

Analysis | Washington Politics

In a little-remarked move, the Biden administration announced Monday that Victoria Nuland will take over as the acting second-in-command at the State Department. She replaces Wendy Sherman, who plans to retire at the end of this week.

Nuland’s appointment will be a boon for Russia hawks who want to turn up the heat on the Kremlin. But, for those who favor a negotiated end to the conflict in Ukraine, a promotion for the notoriously “undiplomatic diplomat” will be a bitter pill.

A few quick reminders are in order. When Nuland was serving in the Obama administration, she had a now-infamous leaked call with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. As the Maidan Uprising roiled the country, the pair of American diplomats discussed conversations with opposition leaders, and Nuland expressed support for putting Arseniy Yatseniuk into power. (Yatseniuk would become prime minister later that month, after Russia-friendly former President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.) At one memorable point in the call, Nuland said “Fu–k the EU” in response to Europe’s softer stance on the protests.

The controversy surrounding the call — and larger implications of U.S. involvement in the ouster of Yanukovych — kicked up tensions with Russia and contributed to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to seize Crimea and support an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. Her handing out  food to demonstrators on the ground in Kyiv probably didn’t help either. Nuland, along with State Department sanctions czar Daniel Fried, then led the effort to punish Putin through sanctions. Another official at State reportedly asked Fried if “the Russians realize that the two hardest-line people in the entire U.S. government are now in a position to go after them?”

Nuland’s hawkish inclinations continued after she left the Obama administration. Back in 2020, she penned a Foreign Affairs essay entitled “Pinning Down Putin” in which she called for a permanent expansion of NATO bases in the alliance’s eastern flank, a move that would be sure to ratchet up tensions between the United States and Russia. As I’ve previously noted, Nuland also opposed the idea of a “free rollover of New START” — the only remaining agreement that limits Washington and Moscow’s nuclear weapons stockpiles — when it was set to expire in 2021.

Since returning to the State Department under President Joe Biden, she has showed little interest in a dovish turn. In an interview earlier this year, Nuland called Putin a “19th century autocrat” and justified Ukrainian attacks in Crimea, which Russia has called a red line. “If we don’t [defeat Putin], every other autocrat on this planet is going to go looking to bite off pieces of countries and destabilize the order that has largely kept us safe and prosperous for decades and decades,” she argued.

To recap, Nuland 1) was allegedly involved in a conspiracy to overthrow Ukraine’s president, 2) was definitely behind a strict sanctions regime on Russian officials, and 3) has never softened her uber-hawkish stances since. With U.S.-Russia tensions at their highest point in decades, there should be little doubt as to how her appointment would be received in Moscow.

There is, of course, some reason for hope. In the statement announcing Sherman’s retirement, the Biden administration did not give a clear indication of whether Nuland would be nominated to formally take over as deputy secretary of state. “Biden has asked Victoria Nuland to serve as Acting Deputy Secretary until our next Deputy Secretary is confirmed,” the statement said. This leaves some reason to believe that there is internal opposition to her nomination, or that the administration has someone else in mind.

For now, we can only wait and see as Kyiv struggles to retake territory through its grinding counteroffensive in the east. “In one month, we have only advanced one kilometer and a half,” a Ukrainian medic told Kyiv Post. “We move forward by inches, but I don’t think it’s worth all the human resources and materiel that we have spent.”

Then-Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland speaks at an event in Ukraine in 2015. (Shutterstock/ Vitaliy Holovin)
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