WASHINGTON (Reuters) — After Russian
President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine last July, U.S. diplomats got a
private recap of the message he delivered behind closed doors to the
country's leaders. Ukraine, Putin warned, would not be allowed to stray
from Moscow's orbit.
Putin's blunt talk was an unexpected sign of how hard Moscow would
fight Western influence on Ukraine, U.S. officials say, prompting
Washington and European capitals to step up their engagement with
Ukrainian government and opposition forces.
Seven months later, the United States and Russia are locked in a
Cold War-style test of wills over the strategically located country
of 45 million that has been racked by anti-government protests and
U.S.-Russia tensions and mutual accusations of meddling are making
it more difficult to find a solution in Ukraine, where the U.S.
fears violence may escalate, and is one of the clearest signs yet
that U.S. President Barack Obama has made scant progress improving
relations with Washington's former adversary.
In Ukraine, former U.S. officials and analysts say, Russia holds
most of the cards, including close proximity, energy supplies that
Kiev depends on and a promised $15 billion bailout it has used to
woo Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich away from an EU trade
Obama, reluctant to act assertively in what Russia has long
considered its sphere of influence, has limited direct leverage and
few good options.
But Washington has decided to use the Ukraine crisis to take a
stand, at least diplomatically, against what the White House regards
as a "worrying and troubling" pattern of Russian behavior toward its
neighbors, a senior U.S. official said.
"Ukraine is going to be a test" of improved U.S.-Russian relations,
said the official, who was not authorized to talk publicly. The
administration has a realistic understanding of what is possible
with Russia, after early enthusiasm about the possibility of working
together. "We understand the shape and the dimensions of the Russia
we're dealing with, and it makes it tougher to find that
The more activist American policy was unintentionally on display
last week in the leaked secret recording of a phone conversation
between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S.
Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.
The two are heard speaking intensely about the formation of an
interim, reform-minded government and treating Moscow like an
adversary. "You can be pretty sure that if (a deal for a new
government) does start to gain altitude the Russians will be working
behind the scenes to try to torpedo it," Pyatt says.
U.S. officials have not directly blamed the leak on Russia, which
has denied its involvement. But the audio clip was first posted on
Twitter by Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister
Dmitry Rogozin, a diplomatic source said.
The leak also revealed U.S.-European tensions over how assertive to
be in the crisis, with Nuland dismissing what American officials
regard as the EU's cautious approach with profanity.
U.S. officials say the damage to trans-Atlantic relations was
fleeting, and that polls taken in the days since show a rise in
Ukrainians' approval of the United States.
THE "RESET" BUTTON IS OFF
The officials say they are trying to avoid any direct confrontation
with Russia over Ukraine, and despite veiled threats from Moscow see
little chance of Russian military intervention there.
But privately, some describe Putin's determination to keep Ukraine
in Moscow's orbit in stark terms, worrying it suggests a desire to
redraw European borders and reopen agreements reached after the
Soviet Union's 1991 collapse.
Obama's attempt to "reset" relations with Russia in his first term,
while it had some successes including a new nuclear arms reduction
deal and cooperation on Afghanistan, never produced enduring trust.
Washington and Moscow are at loggerheads over Syria, where Russia
backs President Bashar al-Assad. The two countries are also at odds
over Putin's crackdown on internal dissent and U.S. missile defense
plans, which Russia feels threatens its national security. The
relationship was further strained when Russia granted asylum to
former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who
leaked classified documents that have caused both security concerns
and political problems for Obama.
Obama, in a joint White House news conference with French President
Francois Hollande on Tuesday, took a swipe at Moscow for what he
said was its blocking of measures to help starving civilians in
Syria's three-year-old civil war.
For the Sochi Winter Olympics, which Putin is touting as a major
milestone in Russia's post-Soviet revival, senior U.S. officials
stayed home. Obama's delegation contained prominent gay American
athletes, a diplomatic rebuke to Russian laws such as one that bans
so-called gay propaganda.
Thomas Graham, who was senior Russia adviser to President George W.
Bush, said the Obama administration is trying to show friends and
foes that it is relevant in Eastern Europe at a time when
U.S.-Russia relations have deteriorated.
"The administration felt that it had to stand up and show that it
had a spine on these issues," Graham said.
But he and others said the United States is not in a strong position
to influence the outcome of the Ukrainian crisis.
"The strength of motivation is on the Russian side," said Steven
Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the
Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank.
"It's a hard problem," Pifer said. If the United States and EU
promised cash-strapped Ukraine $15 billion, "Putin would say fine,
here's $25 billion. He's in a position to outbid us on this one."
U.S. officials say they have levers of their own. Brussels and
Washington have tried to sway Yanukovich with a trade deal with the
EU, the world's largest market, and promises of billions of dollars
in International Monetary Fund loans if Ukraine undertakes economic
Yanukovich is under pressure from street demonstrators, many of whom
want Ukraine to have a European, not Russian, orientation.
Although Europeans are unenthusiastic, the U.S. government is also
considering expanding sanctions against individuals responsible for
violence against the protesters who have occupied Kiev's Maidan
square since late November.
NO COUNTRY IN SIX MONTHS?
The protests have spread from Kiev to other parts of the country.
U.S. engagement accelerated after the crisis turned deadly on
January 22, current and former U.S. officials and a congressional
Nuland met Yanukovich in Kiev late last week to urge a de-escalation
of tensions and constitutional reforms, reflecting U.S. fears that
Ukraine could be engulfed in countrywide civil unrest if the crisis
is not solved.
The U.S. diplomat is said to have replied to Yanukovich's proposal
for a six-month time frame to study constitutional reforms by
warning him that, in six months, he might not have a country to
This is an argument that Washington is also making to Russia as it
seeks to overcome Putin's view of Ukraine as a zero-sum game in
which Kiev's greater economic engagement with the West can only come
at Moscow's expense.
U.S. officials fear, however it will fall on deaf ears. Putin sees
Ukraine as crucial to his dream of a Eurasian customs union to rival
the EU and the United States.
"Putin lays out an agenda for wanting to sit at the table with the
other great powers" but then reverts to "throwback" policies toward
former Soviet satellites, the senior U.S. official said. "The
Russian leadership wants to have its cake and eat it too."
(Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth in Kiev;
editing by Peter
Henderson and Lisa Shumaker)