In an odd juxtaposition of events highlighting the complex relationship between Washington and Moscow, U.S. and Russian officials this week found themselves pledging intelligence cooperation on the Olympics in Sochi while accusing each other of skullduggery in Cold War-style language over the political turmoil in Ukraine.
The alleged hijacking of a Ukrainian airliner overnight by a passenger who reportedly wanted to fly to Sochi, following soon after an angry exchange between the two capitals over demonstrations in Ukraine, only made the mix of confrontation and cooperation more confusing.
Earlier in the week, two senior U.S. spokespeople accused Russia of double-dealing after a Russian official tweeted about an embarrassing audio recording of voices that closely resembled those of U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. The two appeared to be discussing their deep involvement in domestic Ukrainian politics. At one point the voice that sounds like Nuland's remarks, "Fuck the EU," referring to the European Union, which U.S. officials believe has been timid in its response to pro-Western demonstrations in Kiev.
Both White House press secretary Jay Carney and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki denounced Moscow for publicizing the audio, which was posted to YouTube. "I would say that since the video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government, I think it says something about Russia's role," Carney said, according to the Associated Press. In her press briefing, Psaki called the incident "a new low in Russian tradecraft in terms of publicizing and posting this."
Russian officials denied any involvement, but among the first to tweet the audio recording was an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin named Dmitry Loskutov, who messaged: "Sort of controversial judgment from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking about the EU."
Meanwhile, however, other U.S. officials were saying that the United States and Russia were working fairly well together on Sochi-related threat traffic. In congressional testimony this week, Matthew Olsen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said, "We are sharing information with the Russians. They are sharing information with us. There's always more we could do in that regard, but as of right now, I would characterize that level of sharing as good."
A senior U.S. intelligence official told National Journal on Friday afternoon that it was not yet clear whether the passenger who allegedly tried to hijack the plane to Sochi was part of a terrorist plot or simply disturbed. "We're still fleshing out the details," he said, citing several reports that the passenger might have been drunk.
According to news reports, a Pegasus Airlines plane landed at an Istanbul airport overnight after a passenger "said that there was a bomb on board" and insisted that the plane go to Sochi, where the Olympic Games are just getting started. According to an account by Turkish Transportation Ministry official Habip Soluk on CNNTurk, "While the plane was in the air, one of the passengers said that there was a bomb on board and asked the plane to not land in Sabiha Gokcen (in Turkey) but rather to land in Sochi."
Despite warnings of a "toothpaste bomb" and a decision by the Transportation Security Administration to ban liquids, gels, and aerosol from carry-on luggage brought to Sochi, an official with the Department of Homeland Security declined to be specific about the kinds of threats that were coming in. "As always our security posture, which at all times includes a number of measures both seen and unseen, will continue to respond and appropriately adapt to protect the American people from an ever evolving threat picture," she said.
The United States and Russia have been vying for influence inside Ukraine for years, but the issue escalated in recent weeks as Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, cracked down on pro-Western demonstrators. Putin has offered Yanukovich $15 billion in credits and a price break on Russian gas supplies in exchange for Ukrainian fealty to Moscow rather than the EU, and Nuland has been involved in trying to help organize the Ukrainian opposition.