Skip to main content

Victoria Nuland: Farewell to the queen of US foreign policy disasters

For 30 years, from Iraq, Syria and China to Ukraine, Russia and Israel, Nuland's impact on US foreign policy has been disastrous. Let's hope her successor is an improvement
US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland talks with journalists outside St Michael's Cathedral, Kyiv, 31 January 2024 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)
US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland talks with journalists outside St Michael's Cathedral, Kyiv, 31 January 2024 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

Sometimes, major policy changes are anticipated and even symbolised by mere bureaucratic decisions. 

This could certainly be the case for the US Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, who recently announced her retirement after three and a half decades serving as a senior US foreign policy official under ten different secretaries of state. She has probably decided to leave what appears more and more like a sinking ship.

The decision, which has been accompanied by scant coverage in western mainstream media, incontrovertibly signals the abject failures of the Biden administration’s policies, especially in Ukraine and the Middle East. 

The first was supposed to isolate and sanction Russia and bring it to its knees, hopefully triggering a regime change in Moscow.

The second was the unwavering support extended to Israel to reaffirm a Pax Americana in the region through the Abraham Accords, crowned by a deal with Saudi Arabia, and to silently sweep the Palestinian question under the rug.

Stay informed with MEE's newsletters

Sign up to get the latest alerts, insights and analysis, starting with Turkey Unpacked


Two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, Kyiv, short of funding and weapons, seems to have no capability left to affect the war's trajectory.

Sanctions against Russia backfired spectacularly, creating massive problems for Europe’s industrial competitiveness. Ultimately, Moscow has been isolated only by the western countries, while its political and trade relations with the rest of the world are unaffected. On the contrary, they are growing, as is its economy.

In the Middle East, notwithstanding Washington's massive support to Israel in its war in Gaza - for which the US is borderline complicit in a genocide - the Netanyahu government is blatantly ignoring the Biden administration’s pleas to restrain its military offensive and to allow humanitarian aid to a starved Palestinian population.

A ceasefire, or a humanitarian truce, remains elusive, as does a deal for the dual release of the Israeli hostages and the Palestinian prisoners. Finally, an Israeli-Saudi deal seems more distant than before.

Confrontational policies

In the pantheon of US power, the US undersecretary of state for political affairs is the third-ranking member of the US State Department, after the secretary and their deputy. Nevertheless, it is the real engine of US foreign policy.

Nuland has not been just a high-level US diplomat, she has been the spearhead, the golden girl of the US warmongering neoconservative and liberal interventionist movements, which in barely two decades have given humanity the Iraq, Syria, Libya, Ukraine and Palestinian disasters. 

US-China relations: Washington is still haunted by a Cold War mindset
Read More »

In such a desolate landscape, then, if any face should be associated with the last decade's US policy on Russia and, particularly, with the critical file of Ukraine, it is Nuland’s. 

Her career, in which she held top positions within the US foreign service, witnessed the progressive deterioration of US-Russian relations and also US-China relations, to the point where the risks of military confrontation in Europe and East Asia haven't been as high since the most hectic days of the Cold War.

Nuland married Robert Kagan, one of the key founders of the neoconservative think tank Project for a New American Century, which strongly advocated aggressive US military intervention around the world. Nuland shared Kagan's views on Russia, and pursued an obsessive anti-Russian policy, becoming one of the most vocal advocates of the fateful Nato’s eastwards expansion. 

In fact, so relentlessly has she pursued them, that she has now helped create an increased risk of a major global conflict that could affect three strategic theatres at the same time: Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.

It is a rare thing, even in the glorious annals of US diplomacy, to have had an official combine Russophobia, Sinophobia and Islamophobia to produce so much damage.

Maidan activists guard a barricade to prevent an attack by the police in the centre of Kyiv on 24 January 2014 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)
Maidan activists guard a barricade to prevent an attack by the police in the centre of Kyiv on 24 January 2014 (Sergei Supinsky/AFP)

From 1993 to 1996, Nuland was chief of staff to US Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott, the architect of the Clinton’s administration policy on Russia. The 1990s were the happy years of the US-Russia relationship, at least from the American standpoint.

Russia's then President Boris Yeltsin was much loved by the US foreign policy establishment because he was weak and ready to execute all the “instructions” coming from Washington. Among them, the disastrous economic shock therapies, including fake privatisations, which created a class of oligarchs that seized control of the country's resources and accumulated immense fortunes that were syphoned out of the country. 

But these were not good years for the general Russian population, whose level of poverty plunged to Stalin-era levels. These were the years that slowly created the conditions for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. 

Under Yeltsin, Russia was not only keen to adopt US-prescribed economic remedies but also to tolerate acts blatantly detrimental to its historical interests, such as the Nato-led war which broke Kosovo from Serbia in 1999. 

Foreign policy blunders

In the George W Bush administration, Nuland served on the foreign policy staff of Vice President Dick Cheney. History can tell us how much damage US foreign policy caused at that time, starting with the Iraq disaster. 

Nuland's most important accomplishment, for which she deserves an imaginary academy award for foreign policy blunders, was her handling of the Ukrainian file

From 2005 to 2008, Nuland was the US ambassador to Nato. At the infamous Nato summit in Bucharest in April 2008, she pressed allies to grant membership action plans to Ukraine and Georgia.

When the German and French governments refused, she was involved in the blunder in which Nato promised that Ukraine and Georgia would one day be admitted.

Later, in the first Obama administration, she was spokesperson for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and present at the creation of two further disasters: the regime change war in Libya, which turned the country into a failed state, and the unrealistic “Assad must go policy”, which helped transform a peaceful uprising in Syria into a brutal civil war, creating one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 21st century.

However, her most important accomplishment, for which she deserves an imaginary academy award for foreign policy blunders, was her handling of the Ukrainian file in her capacity as assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs under the second Obama administration.

There, she organised the “Maidan coup”, according to the Russian narrative, where she brilliantly succeeded in bringing Ukraine under the western political umbrella and ousting Ukraine's legitimately elected president, Viktor Yanukovych. This overturned a previously agreed political deal brokered by European powers to avoid Ukraine descending into chaos. Famously, in a leaked call to the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, she said "Fuck the EU" at the time.

Bloody and tense years followed, especially in the Donbas region, where fighting broke out between the new US-backed regime in Kyiv and pro-Russian forces in the east, and the relationship between Russia and the West deteriorated after the former, as a reaction, seized control of Crimea.

There was a four-year pause in Nuland's career between January 2017 and January 2021, during which she did not deploy any ticking bombs. The reason is simple: she was not welcome in the new Trump administration.

Unfortunately, under the new Biden administration, Nuland was back and she assumed the critical job of undersecretary of state for policy. With Nuland back, the Kremlin immediately concluded that there was no room for any understanding with the US.

Discreetly, and largely unreported by mainstream media, western military involvement in Ukraine increased and so did Russian anger. It was a trend that, after all, had been ongoing since 2014, as recently revealed by the New York Times.

Moral bankruptcy

Three years later, what Nuland leaves behind is nothing short of disastrous. 

She has accomplished an increased risk of a major global conflict that could affect three strategic theatres at the same time: Europe, the Middle East and East Asia.

US moral standing has been severely injured, and, in the best case, the global rest are indifferent to US pleas and narratives.

Western democracies are also facing moral bankruptcy in the rubble of Gaza while the International Court of Justice has accepted to inquire if Israel, whose right to self-defence has been uncritically supported for too long by the West, is committing a genocide. 

War on Gaza: Why the US refuses to learn the lessons from history
Read More »

The only words of common sense are coming from Pope Francis who, in the case of Ukraine, has urged the international community to recognise how desperate the situation is and to consider peace negotiations to spare further casualties; even the pope was not spared shameful attacks on him from those distorting his words.

In the Middle East, the picture is similarly gloomy. Like the Ukraine situation, the conflict in Gaza is reaching a stalemate, while the risk of escalation remains high, especially with a potential major conflict looming along the Lebanese-Israeli border.

Meanwhile, US leverage over Israel has zeroed, and the Biden administration blindly perseveres in preaching its narratives of good and bad.

Last year, when Wendy Sherman stepped back as US deputy secretary of state, Nuland was nominated as acting deputy secretary of state. Nuland was close to being crowned and it would have been the coronation of her career. 

But in what was probably one of its smartest decisions, the Biden administration picked the National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, Kurt Campbell, for the job. Campbell had been the architect of another failed policy, Hillary Clinton’s pivot to Asia. 

Let’s at least hope that Campbell does not turn China into what Russia was for Nuland. 

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Marco Carnelos is a former Italian diplomat. He has been assigned to Somalia, Australia and the United Nations. He served in the foreign policy staff of three Italian prime ministers between 1995 and 2011. More recently he has been Middle East peace process coordinator special envoy for Syria for the Italian government and, until November 2017, Italy's ambassador to Iraq.
Middle East Eye delivers independent and unrivalled coverage and analysis of the Middle East, North Africa and beyond. To learn more about republishing this content and the associated fees, please fill out this form. More about MEE can be found here.