By Paul Taylor
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - There's nothing like an old-fashioned expletive to add spice to a transatlantic difference of opinion.
But when U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland was caught using the "F-word" on an unsecure telephone line to disparage European Union policy on Ukraine, it highlighted the fact that neither Washington nor Brussels has much of a strategy for handling the crisis in the former Soviet republic.
Since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich pulled out of a major trade pact with the EU in November under Russian pressure, provoking mass protests, the United States and Europe have struggled to gain any influence over the outcome.
Nuland's outburst in late January, which leaked onto the Internet, was apparently directed at the EU's reluctance to impose targeted financial and travel sanctions on Yanukovich and his aides over a crackdown on the pro-European demonstrations.
In another part of the conversation with the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, she discussed which opposition leaders Washington wanted to join or stay out of a proposed transitional government.
Her tone recalled the 2003 book "Of Paradise and Power" by Nuland's husband, historian Robert Kagan, who upset many in Brussels by asserting that "Americans are from Mars, Europeans are from Venus".
In other words: Americans are tough, Europeans are wimps. Americans take responsibility for international security, spend their hard-earned dollars on defense, and recognize the threats to freedom and stability in the world. Europeans are politically naive, unwilling to risk their own blood and treasure, and happy to free-ride on U.S. military protection.
Proclaimed in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States by al Qaeda and published in the year that President George W. Bush invaded Iraq, Kagan's thesis was a child of its time.
Things look different a decade on. The United States has been humbled by military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq that turned sour after achieving the initial objective of ousting hostile rulers, sowing enduring instability.
Europe's preference for diplomacy, nation-building and the "soft power" of economic engagement no longer looks quite so illusory, though it has not necessarily proved more effective.
In the Ukrainian case, Washington and Brussels may differ on tactics but they share common objectives, EU and U.S. officials say, and neither is considering using force.
Both believe that Ukrainians should be free to choose closer economic integration with the EU and that Russia should not be allowed to thwart that aim with threats and sanctions.
Both are prepared to contribute to an aid package if Kiev meets conditions set by the International Monetary Fund, which Yanukovich has so far refused to accept.
Neither is willing to outbid the $15 billion offered by Russian President Vladimir Putin in grants, loans and cheap gas to bail out Ukraine. They have their own financial constraints and both see Ukraine as riddled with corruption and fear their money would end up in the wrong pockets.
Nor does either appear to have a viable contingency plan if Moscow were to tip Ukraine into default by demanding immediate repayment of debts to Russia and its Gazprom gas monopoly.
Both know that Putin regards keeping Ukraine in Russia's economic and political orbit as a vital interest to resurrect what can be salvaged of the former Soviet Union.
Both see Yanukovich as part of the problem rather than the solution, although the Europeans are less inclined to regard him as a pawn of Moscow.
EU officials harbor some hope that he may be willing to preside over an orderly transition with constitutional reform and allow a fair election if he and his entourage are promised legal immunity and protection.
Diplomats say the United States seeks to isolate Yanukovich in the belief that he can be forced from power by the protest movement, although it does not say so openly.
Both may be deluded.
Some EU officials and non-government experts say Yanukovich, at Putin's bidding, may just be waiting until the end of the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia on February 23 to launch an all-out crackdown by Ukrainian security forces, driving the protesters from the country's squares.
The only question in some minds is whether Putin, having worked hard to burnish Moscow's image with the games, is ready to sacrifice it before Russia hosts a summit of the G8 leading economies in June.
Opposition groups have mobilized all across Ukraine, including in Yanukovich's eastern home base, so any attempt to crush their movement could lead to serious bloodshed.
That may be preceded or accompanied by measures to tighten Russian trade screws and raise military pressure on Moldova and Georgia, two former Soviet republics that have agreed to EU association agreements.
Meanwhile Moscow is pressing Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan to join its exclusive Eurasian Union trade bloc, which the EU and China warn would be incompatible with global trade rules. Neither central Asian republic seems keen to do so.
Some EU aides fret privately about more radical scenarios in which Russia might annex the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea, where the Russian navy has a major base in Sebastopol, and perhaps partition Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
"Would the Americans intervene if that were to happen? Of course they would not," a senior EU official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Displaying EU resentment at Nuland's attitude, the official noted that the Ukrainian protesters were carrying European not U.S. flags, and asking to join the EU, not NATO. A Bush era drive to put Ukraine and Georgia on a path to NATO membership foundered when Nuland was U.S. ambassador to the alliance.
European reluctance to apply targeted sanctions against Yanukovich, his family and security chiefs now is partly due to the experience of such measures failing to dislodge the rulers of neighboring Belarus or of Zimbabwe.
Some Brussels officials are also wary of driving Yanukovich deeper into the arms of Putin.
The Europeans have their own divisions, with ex-communist central and east European members seeking a tougher line in support of the demonstrators and in resisting Moscow than countries such as France, Italy and Spain.
Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, which supports civil society organizations in Ukraine, said the transatlantic differences were more about timing.
"The United States was looking for a quick political fix, The EU is thinking longer-term about what a sustainable future for Ukraine might be," she said.
Both risk being overtaken by events beyond their control, since the one lesson that has emerged clearly from three months of crisis is that Putin wants Ukraine more than either the EU or the United States do.
(editing by David Stamp)