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Longtime diplomat Victoria Nuland reflects on what she's learned over the decades

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, HOST:

Victoria Nuland, the nation's third-ranking diplomat, has retired. During her more than 30 years with the State Department, she spent a lot of time on the U.S.-Russia relationship. She spoke with our colleague Steve Inskeep.

VICTORIA NULAND: I came into the business when it was still the Cold War, and it was very much a bipolar world. And then we had this moment where we thought, after the Soviet Union fell, that we would be able to knit both Russia and China into the democratic family. We would have this great lifting of all peoples in all boats. And then, of course, that became harder and harder. So what I would say is it's essentially the same as it's always been, that both our democratic allies around the world, but also countries that are fragile, countries that need support, will always look to the United States for help in coming up with democratic, free and open solutions.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

I wonder if I could ask particularly about Russia and China. You mentioned that there was a time in your career when it was thought that Russia and China were, so to speak, coming on to our team. Can you put that on a personal level for me?

NULAND: Well, you know, I was a young diplomat in Moscow in 1991, 1992, a political officer when the Soviet Union fell. Those years and the years that followed, we worked with a Russia that wanted to be democratic. And then you watch Putin dismantle those things piece by piece. You also know that they're willing to sacrifice their own country's future for this short-term imperial ideal. So you have to make your pitch where you can. On the Chinese side, it's a little bit different, I think, in the sense that Xi Jinping is not going to give up autocratic power. He thinks that's the way to control his population and the way to maintain power. But the question is, are there things nonetheless that we can do together that are global - that are good for the planet, like maintaining open communication on military matters, working on fentanyl, all those kinds of things?

INSKEEP: You talked about being a much younger diplomat in Moscow in the early 1990s. What was that like? What was your view of that country and of the world at that time?

NULAND: Steve, we had an amazing amount of hope. I was young, married with no kids. We had Russian friends and went to their houses for dinner. I traveled all over the country. You know, I would walk up to deputies in the Russian parliament and say, hey, I'm writing a cable for George Bush today about where you're going in your relationship with Germany. What do you think? And, you know, six different political parties would give me quotes that I could put into my cable 'cause they wanted us to understand what they were doing. You know, it was just an amazing, amazing time, and we had great hope that we could do a lot together. As you may know, I got into this business because I fell in love with Russian culture and started reading Tolstoy and Dostoevsky when I was 13 and then couldn't understand why they kept having bad government through the Soviet period, etc. So I'm a person who believes that Americans and Russians as humans have a lot in common, but bad government often gets in the way on the Russian side.

INSKEEP: Do you think you've figured out after all this time why they keep having bad government?

NULAND: Well, I think in the case of the man who just got himself, let's call it, selected for a fifth term, I think that he has denied his country the future that it could have had, a strong European future, part of the green and technology revolution that we all want, open and part of the global community. And he's done that because he has a 20th-century view of what makes a nation great. And it's imperial, and it's about him, and it's about control, and it's very sad.

INSKEEP: Undersecretary Nuland, thanks for your time and thanks for your service. Appreciate it.

NULAND: Thank you, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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