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U.S. Takes Off The Gloves In Rhetorical Rumble With Russia

The appointment of Victoria Nuland as U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, whose candidacy was backed by foreign-policy hawks, is seen by some as the beginning of a tougher stance toward Moscow.
The appointment of Victoria Nuland as U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, whose candidacy was backed by foreign-policy hawks, is seen by some as the beginning of a tougher stance toward Moscow.
The U.S. administration has ratcheted up the rhetoric as it wrestles with Russia over mounting tensions in Ukraine, engaging the Kremlin in the kind of confrontational and caustic war of words it largely eschewed during U.S. President Barack Obama's first five years in office.

From a campaign to debunk Russian claims point by point, to social-media dust-ups teetering on the edge of "flame wars," the media blitz contrasts sharply with Washington's public diplomacy under Obama's "reset" policy with Moscow during his first term.

"There's certainly a change in tone, but there's also a change in tone...on the Russian side as well. It takes two to play at this game," a former U.S. official who worked closely with the Obama administration on its reset policy says.

Even a severe deterioration in bilateral ties in 2013 -- including over issues like the U.S. Magnitsky Act sanctions, the bloody civil war in Syria, and Russia's decision to grant asylum to fugitive U.S. intelligence analyst Edward Snowden -- did not spark the type of coordinated, multilayered information crusade from Washington like the one it's waging in response to the Ukraine crisis.

U.S. officials continued that offensive this week amid the seizure of government buildings in eastern Ukraine by armed pro-Russia forces, developments in which Moscow has denied involvement.

"Russia claims the situation in Ukraine risks spiraling into civil war. What is going on wouldn't be happening without Russian provocateurs," the U.S. State Department wrote on its Twitter feed on April 13.

Two Times Two Equals Five

Earlier that day, the State Department issued separate statements laying out its "evidence of Russian support for destabilization of Ukraine," as well as what it describes as an additional 10 "false claims" by Russia about Ukraine.

A March 5 State Department statement accused Russia of spinning a "false narrative to justify its illegal actions in Ukraine" and accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of disseminating myths about the crisis. "The world has not seen such startling Russian fiction since Dostoyevsky wrote, 'The formula "two times two equals five" is not without its attractions,'" the March 5 statement read.

Senior U.S. officials have buttressed this campaign on their individual Twitter feeds, including Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and Daniel Baer, Obama's envoy to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

On his Twitter feed, Baer accused Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on April 14 of attempting to co-opt a U.S. request last week for an emergency OSCE Permanent Council meeting to discuss what he described as Russian "crimes" in and around Ukraine.

In a statement delivered to the OSCE Permanent Council the same day, Baer accused Russia of "disrespecting" the international community and Russian citizens with "its continuing campaign of lies."

A New Team

Even before mass protests erupted in Ukraine in late November, some in Washington saw several personnel changes in the Obama administration as portending a shift away from reset-era realpolitik and toward a tougher line with Moscow.

These included the appointment of Victoria Nuland as U.S. assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, whose candidacy was backed by foreign-policy hawks John McCain and Lindsey Graham, Republican senators who have accused Obama of glad-handing the Kremlin.

Nuland, who was confirmed by the Senate in September 2013, has been a prominent face and voice at the front line of Washington's support for the Ukrainian government in Kyiv and for opponents of ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.

But the rhetorical sea change in Washington has primarily been driven by the extraordinary events in Ukraine, whose implications are seen by U.S. officials as having far more profound and unpredictable reach than other bilateral disputes in recent years, says Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

"It's the Russians doing things that the administration views -- correctly in my view -- as a fundamental violation of the rules of the post-World War II order," Pifer says. "One of the key rules was: 'You don't use military force to take the territories of other countries,' which is exactly what the Russians did in Crimea."

Russia has defended last month's annexation as an expression of the will of the people in Crimea, home to an ethnic-Russian majority, and likened it to Kosovo's 2008 declaration of independence, which Western countries backed and Russia opposed. The United States and NATO have publicly dismissed the analogy as a false comparison.

The ramp-up in U.S. rhetoric over Ukraine has been accompanied by sanctions against dozens of Ukrainian and Russian officials and businesspeople, many of whom are widely believed to be close to Putin.

But some critics in Washington say the Obama administration is failing to back up its tough talk.

"My hero Teddy Roosevelt used to say talk softly and carry a big stick. What you're doing is talking strongly and carrying a very small sick. In fact, a twig," McCain, an Arizona Republican and a relentless Putin critic, told Secretary of State John Kerry at an April 8 Senate hearing.

Kerry later replied by referencing another piece of wisdom from the 26th U.S. president.

"Your friend, Teddy Roosevelt, also said that the credit belongs to the people who are in the arena who are trying to get things done," Kerry told McCain at the hearing. "And we are trying to get something done. That is a Teddy Roosevelt maxim, and I abide by it."
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

RFE/RL has been declared an "undesirable organization" by the Russian government.

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