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Despite coarse comment, Nuland no stranger to power of words

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland leaves after a news conference at the U.S. embassy in Kiev February 7, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland leaves after a news conference at the U.S. embassy in Kiev February 7, 2014. REUTERS/Gleb

By Arshad Mohammed

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Victoria Nuland, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe who angered some of the very people she is supposed to cultivate by crudely disparaging the European Union in a leaked phone call on America's Ukraine policy, is no stranger to the power of words.

A career diplomat who speaks Russian and French, Nuland has served near the top of the U.S. foreign policy apparatus for years, including a stint performing the high-wire act of State Department spokeswoman.

The daughter of an eminent Yale University professor, she landed in some hot water this week when a recording of a mobile phone call surfaced on the internet and caught her saying "Fuck the EU."

It is the kind of remark, former officials said, that is often made privately in Washington and that might even win Nuland some quiet applause, but its appearance on YouTube and its promotion by a Russian official embarrassed the State Department and raised questions about its security procedures.

U.S. officials have not questioned the authenticity of the recording, which so irked German Chancellor Angela Merkel that her spokeswoman said she found it "totally unacceptable."

Nor have U.S. officials hidden their belief that the recording was likely made by the intelligence services of Russia, where Nuland served early in her career.

There was no sign on Friday that Nuland's job was in jeopardy.

There seems to be little love lost between the Kremlin and Nuland, at least to judge by an anecdote U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry told about one of his early meetings last year with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Nuland had recently left her post as the State Department spokeswoman and so was not at her normal spot around the table.

"Lavrov looked at my staff, and he said to me, 'John, I see you finally fired that Toria Nuland'," Kerry said at Nuland's September 18 swearing-in ceremony.

"And I took great pleasure in looking at him and saying, 'No, I promoted her,'" Kerry added, prompting laughter from scores of diplomats, U.S. officials, journalists and family members who came to the State Department witness the event.

PRACTICING RUSSIAN ON FISHING TRAWLER

A career diplomat who spent months polishing her Russian by working on a Soviet fishing trawler, Nuland has served conservatives such as Dick Cheney when he was vice president and liberals including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

"As the most prominent member of the unique - some might even say improbable - ... Dick Cheney-Hillary Clinton Alumni Association she has earned the trust and confidence of Democrats and Republicans alike," Kerry said.

Nuland's assignments have included several plum posts, among them ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (2005-2008) and, early in her career, chief of staff to former Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott (1993-1996).

She has said that her most formative experience as a young diplomat was standing in the rain in Moscow in August 1991 as a quarter of a million people gathered to reject a coup attempt against former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.

The diplomat comes from a distinguished intellectual family. Her father, a clinical professor of surgery at Yale University, is the author of "How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter" which won the prestigious U.S. National Book Award.

Her father-in-law, Donald Kagan, is a Yale historian well known for writing on the Peloponnesian War.

Nuland is not the only member of the family to have ruffled European feathers.

Her husband, conservative historian and foreign policy columnist Robert Kagan, caused offense in Brussels in 2002 with an essay - and later a book - arguing that the U.S. and Europe worldviews were diverging. On the question of using military force "Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus," he wrote.

At her swearing-in ceremony, Nuland alluded to this as she spoke of her devotion to her husband, saying: "He is my Mars, he is my Venus, he is my Planet Earth."

Nuland is known for her blunt, and occasionally salty, language in private.

She seemed to allude to this at her September 18 swearing-in ceremony, joking that "as one of the conditions of my employment, my unclassified email has been disabled."

(Additional reporting by Paul Taylor in Paris; Reporting By Arshad Mohammed; Editing by David Storey and Tom Brown)

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