Blinken's State Dept takes tougher stance on Russia than White House does: observers

Firm resolve from the State Department on Russia stems from the influence of longtime diplomat Victoria Nuland, observers told Just the News.

Updated: April 5, 2022 - 11:30pm

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with NATO foreign ministers in Belgium to discuss the crisis in Ukraine, his reputedly cautious department has emerged with an unexpectedly hawkish reputation, in contrast to a seemingly timid White House.

The administration overall has denounced Russian President Vladimir Putin's attack on Ukraine, particularly as credible reports emerge that Moscow's troops have brutally mistreated Ukrainian civilians. But the language and approach have differed, particularly in two of the most prominent U.S. government offices.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday deflected questions about placing Putin on trial for war crimes.

"That's not quite where we're at right now," Psaki told a reporter who asked whether Putin would be asked to turn himself in, or would be arrested. "We're not going to prejudge" what would happen, she added.

Blinken on Tuesday was more direct, as he prepared to depart Washington for Brussels.

"What we've seen in Bucha is not the random act of a rogue unit," Blinken said, regarding reports of brutality against civilians inside the Kyiv suburb. "It's a deliberate campaign to kill, to torture, to rape, to commit atrocities."

The horrific reports are "more than credible," Blinken said. "The evidence is there for the world to see. This reinforces our determination and the determination of countries around the world to make sure that one way or another, one day or another, there is accountability for those who committed these acts, for those who ordered them."

The differing approach has been noticed and remarked upon among European allies, according to one report. 

Blinken's team is viewed overall as being more receptive to giving military aid to Ukraine, whereas National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan is seen as being "afraid of winning," for fear that Putin could strike back with nuclear weapons, the report read

"It's quite extraordinary that the State Department is rather on the hawkish side, whereas the White House is certainly pretty careful about this 'provoking' thing,” one European official said while speaking to an American journalist in Warsaw. 

Firm resolve from the State Department, which has been viewed by some as overly conciliatory toward foreign governments, stems from the influence of longtime diplomat Victoria Nuland, observers told Just the News.

"She is a subject matter expert who sees clearly what we are up against," one currently serving State Department official said. "She has earned respect for her views." The official is not authorized to speak to the press, and spoke to Just the News on condition of anonymity.

Nuland, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, first rose to prominence in the Clinton administration, and has held key foreign policy positions for decades.

Nuland used blunt, direct language last month when appearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to address Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"President Putin has not only attacked Ukraine, he has trashed the U.N. principle of the self-determination of states and questioned Ukraine's right to exist," Nuland said. "He is testing the foundations of international law, and he is testing all of us," including "democracies around the world."

Nuland made her comments early in the war, when Putin's attack on Ukraine was less than two weeks old. Noting that "we are in a battle between democracy and autocracy," Nuland told senators that "free people, free nations, a free Ukraine must prevail."

Putin has turned his own country into "a prison," Nuland said, enumerating how — as a result of Western sanctions — Russian people no longer can use their credit cards, ATM cash dispensers, and social media.

Nuland's comments to senators helped set the tone for the State Department's approach to Russia and Ukraine, the official said. 

"This is a war launched by one man for his own twisted reasons," Nuland said. "It is a war built on the lies he has told the world, his own people, and his military. And now it is a war built on the suffering and grief of so many Ukrainians — and Russians too — parents, spouses, partners, children who will never see their loved ones again, all because of one man's evil choices."

Putin on Feb. 24 ordered his forces to invade their western neighbor for what he presumed would be a quick, decisive "special military operation" to "demilitarize" Ukraine.

Instead, Russian troops faltered, even while launching devastating artillery and rocket barrages against Ukrainian cities, prompting international crisis talks and meetings such as the one being held in Brussels. 

"What's vital is to sustain and build on the support for Ukraine," Blinken said before leaving Washington. The West must "sustain and build on the pressure against Russia to bring this war to an end, to stop the death and destruction that Russia's perpetrating in Ukraine."