Blinken takes anti-graft message, old Russia foe to Ukraine

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FILE - In this Oct. 8, 2014, file photo, Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland talks with a Ukrainian border guard general during her visit to the State Border Guard Service in Kyiv, Ukraine. When Secretary of State Antony Blinken travels to Ukraine hell be carrying a tough anti-graft message and strong U.S. backing for the countrys response to Russian aggression. Hell also be bringing along a familiar face in the Washington-Moscow tug-of-war over Ukraine: Victoria Nuland. The mere presence in Kyiv of Nuland, now the No. 3 State Department official, is likely to irritate Russia. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, File)

WASHINGTON – Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday carrying a tough anti-graft message and strong U.S. backing for the country’s response to Russian aggression. Blinken has also brought along a familiar face in the long-running Washington-Moscow tug-of-war over Ukraine: Victoria Nuland, now the No. 3 State Department official.

The 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 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.

In meetings on Thursday with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, members of Ukraine’s parliament and civic leaders, Blinken plans to highlight the U.S. commitment to Ukraine but also stress the need for reform, particularly as it relates to corruption. Just last week, the State Department slammed Ukraine’s leaders for replacing the board of the country’s main state-run energy firm with members widely seen as more pliant to government wishes and less concerned about transparency.

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.