By the summer of 2016, Victoria Nuland’s “Spidey sense” told her something was very wrong.
That spring, Nuland, the top State Department official charged with overseeing U.S. policy toward Russia, was one of those who had “first rung the alarm bell” inside the Obama administration, warning that Russia appeared to be trying to “discredit the democratic process” in the United States as part of a concerted 2016 strategy.
Now, the Russian campaign was turning out to be even more serious than she had imagined. She had known since late 2015 that the Democratic National Committee’s email servers had been hacked; all these months later, the stolen DNC emails were being publicly released by websites known to be Russian conduits right on the eve of the Democratic convention, and U.S. intelligence agencies would soon confirm the hack to be a Russian operation.
“That’s when the hairs really went up on the back of our necks,” she recounted in an interview with The Global Politico, her first extensive public comments about what it was like to spend months in the middle of the U.S. government’s halting, frustrating attempts to understand the Russian attack on the U.S. electoral system—and then try to figure out how to respond to it.
While the broad contours of that response are known, hearing it viscerally described by one of those who tried to stop it is bracing. Nuland is now confirming publicly that she pushed President Barack Obama to respond more aggressively to the hacking before the election and acknowledging that she and others at the State Department were informed by “sometime in late July” about the inflammatory findings of former British intelligence officer Christopher Steele apparently linking the Russian effort to Republican candidate Donald Trump. Unbeknownst to her, the FBI, also in July 2016, had begun a secret investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia. The issue of whether the Steele report, paid for by Democrats, helped fuel that investigation is now the subject of heated partisan dispute on Capitol Hill.
In the interview, Nuland said she was familiar with Steele’s work through regular reports he had passed on to her office over the previous several years dealing with political maneuverings in Russia and Ukraine. When presented by an intermediary with the startling information about “linkages” between Trump and Russia that summer, “what I did was say that this is about U.S. politics,” Nuland recounted, “and not the business of the State Department, and certainly not the business of a career employee who is subject to the Hatch Act, which requires that you stay out of politics. So, my advice to those who were interfacing with him was that he should get this information to the FBI, and that they could evaluate whether they thought it was credible.”
Nuland would spend the next few months—the last, as it turned out, of her 32-year career at the State Department—lobbying unsuccessfully to do more to retaliate for the Russia hacking before the November election that saw Trump emerge as a surprise victor. Nuland, who had worked closely with politicians as varied as Republican Dick Cheney and Democrat Hillary Clinton while at State and is now the CEO of the nonpartisan Center for a New American Security, ended up quitting the State Department days before Trump took office over her qualms about him.
But she remains critical of Obama’s handling of the Russia affair as well, and she told me she believed Obama had failed to take “countermeasures”—both “overt and non-overt”—“that would have raised the cost” on Russia and possibly prevented further incursions. In part, she said, that may have been because the U.S. intelligence community, though it ultimately came out after the election and pinned the pro-Trump campaign on Russia, delayed too long in doing so. “The attribution from the intelligence community, frankly, came far later than it should have,” she said.
A professional Russia hand who started at State in the waning days of the Soviet Union and served as U.S. ambassador to NATO during George W. Bush’s presidency and State Department spokeswoman for Hillary Clinton before becoming assistant secretary for Europe, Nuland was known as one of the most hawkish members of Obama’s team when it came to Russia. In our conversation, she said she believed Obama had miscalculated in how he handled Russian President Vladimir Putin on the hacking. “Certainly, with Vladimir Putin, straight reciprocity, whether you’re trying to make an affirmative deal, or whether you’re trying to blunt bad action, is the best way to go,” Nuland said. “So, there were a number of us inside arguing that we should make it cost for them earlier on.”
Victoria Nuland served five presidents and 11 secretaries of state in her 32 years in the foreign service. In our wide-ranging interview about a career that began with Ronald Reagan and ended with her fears that Trump would junk the NATO alliance she had worked hard to sustain, Nuland joked that she had a “Forrest Gump”-like knack for ending up in the midst of historic events, like being in Moscow for the August 1991 coup that spelled the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
Still, she is not a household name in the Russiagate affair. She has not spoken out until now or become one of the regular talking heads to parse the latest revelations about the investigations being undertaken by special counsel Robert Mueller and various congressional committees. But if you want to understand what the 2016 election hacking scandal at its base is all about, her account of dealing with Russia at the highest levels of the U.S. government over the past few decades—from the hope that came with the Soviet Union’s collapse to the confrontation of the past few years—is an indispensable one, building to the still-confounding and not entirely explained events of 2016.
It is a story, as Nuland tells it, of frustrating bureaucratic delays, of Russia experts who set alarm bells ringing but found themselves debating just what was the right thing to do even while understanding what the American public did not yet get: This was a major new escalation in “an ideological struggle” with Putin’s resurgent Russia.
It was also, at least for Nuland, a story that, in hindsight, might not have been all that surprising after all—because in the winter of 2014, Nuland herself was hacked by the Russians.
At the time, Nuland was a year into her role as Obama’s assistant secretary for Europe. She had been in Kiev, frantically working behind the scenes to put in place a new governing coalition in Ukraine as it teetered on the brink of revolution against its Russia-backed leader, Viktor Yanukovych (the same Yanukovych, it should be noted, who was being advised at the time by future Trump campaign chief Paul Manafort).
The Russians had eavesdropped on a phone call between Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and the audio they leaked of her decidedly undiplomatic language dropped like a bomb in the midst of her delicate efforts to cajole European counterparts into doing more with the Ukrainians. An F-bomb, to be more precise. “Fuck the EU,” Nuland had exclaimed in exasperation to her colleague.
Obama declined to fire her when the call became public, but the Russians did succeed in embarrassing Nuland, who was forced to make public and private amends for her salty language and the bruised feelings it left behind.
In our interview, she joked that the leaked call meant that she was “an early adapter as a victim of Russian tradecraft”—and said, more seriously, that she had learned a key lesson from the incident. “The gloves were coming off and the knives were coming out,” she said she realized, and Putin was now willing to “pull out Cold War-style dirty tricks,” even against a top U.S. official, for the first time arguably since the end of the actual Cold War.
In hindsight, the hacking of Nuland in 2014, just like similar leaks targeted at Russian opponents across Eastern Europe, had been no isolated, one-off event. It was part of a dramatic escalation by Putin, and one that the United States, bent for two decades on a strategy of trying to integrate Russia into the American-led international order, had failed to reckon with.
By the time the initial reports of the DNC hacking and other data points reached her early in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign season, Nuland was perhaps far more primed than others in the American government to take notice. But even then, even with Trump openly praising Putin and all the other indicators, she found it hard to believe what would ultimately come out.
“I think when we first rung the alarm bell inside the administration, in the spring of 2016, that we needed to better understand what the Russians were up to in our electoral system,” Nuland said. “I don’t think that anybody necessarily thought that they were going to try to put their finger on the scale for one candidate versus another, but simply that they were going to try to discredit the democratic process, and they were going to try to show that it was dirty and not as clean as we’d maintained, as a way of legitimizing their own less-than-perfect electoral system, and creating moral equivalency.”
Looking back now, with the benefit of a year’s worth of stunning disclosures, listening to Nuland’s account can’t help but give one the painful sense that she had been watching a slow-motion car crash—and basically powerless to do anything about it. Her “Spidey sense” was flashing, but, it turned out, it wasn’t enough.
The outlines of that story, of course, are well known by now.
But in the midst of the escalating partisan furor over the investigation, they tend to be forgotten, glossed over, or even, in the case of President Trump himself, outright denied.
And indeed, even as Nuland and I were speaking on Friday, up on Capitol Hill Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, was putting out a document, based on classified information, that sought to call into question the origins of the FBI investigation into Trump’s alleged Russia ties. It was a highly partisan memo, and one whose main goal seems to be not shedding light on how and why Russia successfully targeted the 2016 U.S. elections—but on discrediting the American law-enforcement institutions looking into it.
Original article by: Susan B. Glasser is POLITICO’s chief international affairs columnist.