Blinken Heads to Ukraine 05/05 07:00

Blinken Heads to Ukraine      05/05 07:00

   

   WASHINGTON (AP) -- When Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Ukraine 
this week he'll be carrying a tough anti-graft message and strong U.S. backing 
for the country's response to Russian aggression. He'll also be taking along a 
familiar face in the Washington-Moscow tug-of-war over the former Soviet 
republic: Victoria Nuland.

   The one-day stop is intended to demonstrate America's continued commitment 
to Ukraine as it copes with Russia's support for separatists and a buildup of 
troops along its eastern border, as well as to press Kyiv on corruption. It 
comes at a time of heightened U.S. tensions with Russia not only on Ukraine but 
also because of U.S. criticism of Russia over human rights, hacking and 
interference in elections. Both countries recently ordered tit-for-tat 
diplomatic expulsions.

   Yet beyond these major issues, the mere presence in Kyiv of Nuland, now the 
No. 3 State Department official, is likely to irritate Russia. A Russia hawk, 
Nuland is reviled by the Kremlin and was a main target of Moscow's attacks on 
the U.S. during Ukraine's 2013-14 revolution and Russia's annexation of Crimea 
when she served as assistant secretary of state for Europe during the Obama 
administration.

   Blinken said Monday in London that he would use the visit to show "our 
unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity 
of Ukraine." Other officials have said he would also press on institutional 
reform and anti-corruption measures. "There is a lot of hard work to be done to 
ensure a brighter future for all Ukrainians," the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, 
Phillip Reeker, said last week.

   But Blinken's trip also comes on the heels of a Ukraine-related FBI raid on 
former President Donald Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and renewed 
questions about the Trump administration's dealings with Ukraine that led to 
the firing of a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and laid the 
foundation for GOP attacks against President Joe Biden.

   The East-West battle for influence and standing in Ukraine has been a 
recurrent theme since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Nuland's advocacy 
for reform-minded, pro-Western Ukrainian politicians incurred the Kremlin's 
wrath.

   A career diplomat who retired from the foreign service rather than serve in 
the Trump administration, Nuland drew Moscow's ire and accusations of meddling 
for appearing at an opposition rally in Kyiv's Maidan square during the 
uprising that eventually overthrew Ukraine's pro-Russia leader Viktor 
Yanukovych.

   But even while serving as State Department spokeswoman under Secretary of 
State Hillary Clinton, Nuland, who goes by her nickname "Toria," was a frequent 
thorn in Moscow's side, regularly chiding Russia for its policies. That 
prompted Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to remark on her departure from 
the spokeswoman's role after John Kerry took over as President Barack Obama's 
top diplomat in 2013.

   "My first trip after Toria left her post as spokesperson, Foreign Minister 
Lavrov looked at my staff, and he said to me, 'John, I see you finally fired 
that Toria Nuland'," Kerry said to laughter at her swearing-in ceremony for 
assistant secretary of state for Europe. "And I took great pleasure in looking 
at him and saying, 'No, I promoted her.'"

   Then came the infamous phone call, a recording of which was leaked by 
Russian intelligence services, in which Nuland derided the European Union's 
hesitancy in attempts to mediate a resolution to the Ukraine crisis. "F - - - 
the EU," Nuland said in the call with then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey 
Pyatt.

   The leak of the call went viral and was widely seen as a Russian attempt to 
split the U.S. from its European partners on Ukraine. But, while it did cause a 
media stir, the U.S. and Europe remained generally united in their positions, 
Russia found a new target for its hostility, Nuland's successor as spokeswoman, 
Jen Psaki, who is now Biden's press secretary, and she carried on in her 
position until Trump's election in 2016.

   Now, after an absence of four years, and eight years after Kerry teased 
Lavrov about Nuland's elevation in the ranks, she's been promoted again: 
undersecretary of state for political affairs, where she'll enjoy considerable 
influence in policy decisions about Europe and elsewhere.

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