Did ‘Toria’ Jump…Or Was She Pushed?

by | Mar 8, 2024

(This was first published as an update exclusive for Ron Paul Institute subscribers. Subscribe for free here.)

The sudden retirement announcement by State Department Deputy Secretary for Political Affairs Victoria “Toria” Nuland earlier this week left many US foreign policy watchers – your author included – trying to read the tea leaves to see what was actually going on.

There are plenty of theories and speculations as to what motivated someone like Nuland – whose entire professional career seemed to hinge on getting this proxy war on Russia started  – to suddenly pack it in and pull out of the game, mid-inning. Especially as the Biden Administration and its supporters still largely claim (in public) that Ukraine can “win” and in fact is winning (with just one more cash infusion from Washington). Who would walk away when your life’s work was just coming to fruition? Does it make any sense?

There are many theories. Let’s look at some of them.

First theory: Cashing in. A sober Nuland sees the failure of “Project Ukraine” and wants out before it gets too hot in the APC. The neocons are very good at one thing: distancing themselves from their worst disasters in the most timely of manners. Example: all neocons circa 2006: “I never really believed Iraq had WMDs!”

In fact neocon Senator Marco Rubio just this week said that he’d always known Ukraine couldn’t win, but, “tried not talk about this publicly because I thought it undermined the leverage that Ukraine had.”

So at age 62 with a second Biden term looking very iffy, is Nuland looking to cash in for all her years in “government service” before her brand is tarnished by another Afghanistan-style collapse in Ukraine? There surely are plenty of think tank sinecures available for the likes of Nuland. The money that most Americans believe goes to protect us in the yearly National Defense Authorization bills, in fact to a grotesque degree goes to the Beltway “think tanks” promoting war – and is thereby used to promote…more military spending!

My old friend Chuck Spinney’s “self-licking ice cream cone.”

Then there are the universities, which bathe luxuriously in government money and in turn return the favor by slavishly supporting the national security state – that money tide that raises all boats. Ask exiled neocon former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul about his charmed life navel-gazing at US government funded Stanford University. Never has anyone so wrong about so much benefitted so massively from it.

Theory Two: Nuland didn’t jump, she was pushed. For the past ten years, US policy toward Ukraine has been identified more with Victoria Nuland than perhaps anyone else. Even before that, she was working behind the scenes under Strobe Talbott in the 1990s to, by subterfuge, bring a fractured Russia under Washington’s boot. But she later ended up being the poster-person for the 2014 US-backed coup against the democratically-elected and universally-recognized government in Ukraine.

As US-backed thugs shot at the crowd – “friendly fire” – to create the chaos and fury necessary to motivate the protesters to “finish it,” Nuland was right there in their midst cheering them on. She was even famously caught in an intercepted phone call with then-US Ambassador to Kiev Geoff Pyatt actually picking who would staff the post-coup Ukraine government.

Imagine if the events of January 6th, 2021, were actually a coup rather than a rowdy protest, and suddenly there emerged on the steps of the US Capitol some of the highest ranking officials from the Chinese Communist Party literally directing the insurrectionists and advising them on how to strike a death-blow to the elected government of the United States. It seems impossible here, but it happened in Ukraine. And none of the US media even bothered to question it. After all, as is attributed to Karl Rove, “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” The rules do not apply to us.

Fast forward eight years to just before February 2022 and Nuland’s desired “take-down” of Russia was on track. Years of provocations – from NATO expansion to militarization of Ukraine to, as the New York Times only recently reported, covert US warfare directed against Russia from Ukrainian territory – produced a situation where a Russian president who preferred peace agreements felt his only option was war. 

We belatedly discovered, in fact, that the Minsk Agreements signed by Russia and Ukraine in 2015 were not considered by the French and German mediators as a pathway to peace, but rather a means of buying time for renewed war with a militarily strengthened Ukraine.

But two years into Nuland’s proxy war – again, her life’s work – the neocon promises of a defeated Russia bowing prostrate and Putin-less before Washington and Brussels has, like all grand neocon plans, come a cropper. Sanctions did not destroy the Russian economy, as they promised, but rather brought in record revenue and in fact opened up an entire “global south” to closer ties and more robust trade with Russia. Indeed, India/Russia trade hit record highs last year amid futile western moves to isolate Moscow. The unintended consequences of US economic warfare on Russia have been the global realization that the US dollar is not as critical as once thought to keep the global wheels of commerce spinning.

What’s bad for Nuland is that the Biden Administration’s Ukraine policy has become deeply unpopular at home, with a solid majority of Americans, according to a CNN poll, opposed to more US aid to Ukraine. Worse, according to a Gallup poll taken at the end of February, about the only thing lower than President Biden’s dismal 38 percent overall approval rating is his even more dismal 33 percent approval rating on foreign policy. 

No one in the US government has been as closely and publicly identified with Biden’s Ukraine policy than Victoria Nuland, and with a challenging – to say the least – election season approaching, there might be a realization among those who would rather not give up the levers of executive power that some new faces are in order. Perhaps that explains why Nuland’s replacement at the State Department, John Bass, is the government official tapped to manage the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan

The symbolism of putting the guy in charge of “Project Ukraine” whose main claim to fame was the US breakneck departure from Afghanistan cannot be ignored. 

Theory Three: ‘It’s complicated.’ There are often great benefits to reading foreign observers of the US scene. For years I have been reading non-American analysts of US policy who I consider particularly insightful. People like retired UK diplomat Alastair Crooke, who served in the Middle East and who I consider among the most knowledgeable and balanced on the region. I have also been reading retired Indian diplomat Melkulangara Bhadrakumar for many years. From well before Dr. Paul retired from the US House. For years I’d print up his pieces in the Asia Times and take them with me to read on my commute home to the NoVa suburbs. Now we reprint many of them here.

When Bhadrakumar came out with his own explainer piece this week on the meaning of Nuland’s sudden retirement announcement, I dug into it with relish. It did not disappoint, but it was not what I expected. For example, he wrote:

The general impression of Nuland is of an inveterate ‘hawk’ and Russophobe fired up by neoconservative ideology and American exceptionalism who precipitated the Russian intervention in Ukraine and is largely responsible for fueling the ongoing war. Of course, there is no denying that Nuland played a key role in the regime change in Kiev 10 years ago. 

But what lies buried in the debris and all but forgotten today is that Nuland also promoted the Minsk Agreements as the way out of the impasse in Donbass where explosive violence erupted in 2014 as ethnic Russian separatists with support from Russian hinterland rejected the contrived usurpation of power in Kiev by Ukrainian ultra-nationalist forces. 

Bhadrakumar goes on to ponder the possibility that Nuland’s vision for a diplomatic solution to the open wound of a separatist-minded, Russian-majority Donbas at odds with the extreme nationalists who had consolidated power after the Maidan coup, is what brought her back to a senior position at the US State Department to continue what she had been working on during Obama, but that had been ignored or abandoned under the Trump presidency. The idea was that she came back to complete what she had started, but that her original vision for a solution to the on-going crisis had been overtaken by events in a Biden Administration that was more focused on restoring the Atlanticism that his immediate predecessor had publicly eschewed. 

It is a far more charitable take on Nuland than I would have expected from the Indian diplomat and certainly a benefit of the doubt beyond that which I would be willing to give. But sometimes these answers are more complicated and multi-faceted than at first they seem. That’s just how it is.

Bonus – Humor from Blinken: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is not a particularly funny person, but in an incredibly flowery send-off for Nuland he inserted several unintended zingers that were difficult to get through with a straight face. Of Nuland, for example, he effused, “she has personified President Biden’s commitment to put diplomacy back at the center of our foreign policy,” which is hard to swallow without a guffaw considering that the Administration is literally at war with most of the globe. War on Yemen, proxy war on Russia, fighting in Iraq, airstrikes in Syria, drone strikes in Somalia, saber-rattling toward China. Threats to Belarus and most of the rest of the global south.

If there is any diplomacy going on in this Administration it’s gunboat diplomacy!

Then comes Blinken’s punchline: “…it’s Toria’s leadership on Ukraine that diplomats and students of foreign policy will study for years to come.” There is no doubt that Nuland’s “leadership” on Ukraine will be studied by future students of diplomacy, but certainly not in the way Blinken intended. A senior US government official in the middle of a foreign coup her government instigated, regulating traffic and picking who should replace the overthrown democracy? It will be in a future State Department guide on how NOT to do foreign policy.

Conclusion – I don’t know: I don’t know why Nuland left at this moment. It may be something as simple and personal as a family crisis or a health issue. However, given her career helping shape a confrontational post-Cold War US foreign policy, it is very hard to accept that she would be one to just grow tired of the position and walk away. Neocons do not have a reverse gear.

Time will tell.


  • Daniel McAdams

    Executive Director of the Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity and co-Producer/co-Host, Ron Paul Liberty Report. Daniel served as the foreign affairs, civil liberties, and defense/intel policy advisor to U.S. Congressman Ron Paul, MD (R-Texas) from 2001 until Dr. Paul’s retirement at the end of 2012. From 1993-1999 he worked as a journalist based in Budapest, Hungary, and traveled through the former communist bloc as a human rights monitor and election observer.

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