U.S. and Russia: Cooperation and Confrontation

Moscow and Washington work together on Sochi threats while battling fiercely over Ukraine.

Nordic combined skier Todd Lodwick of the United States Olympic team carries his country’s flag during the Opening Ceremony of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Fisht Olympic Stadium on February 7, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
National Journal
Michael Hirsh
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Michael Hirsh
Feb. 7, 2014, 10:21 a.m.

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.

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