|A recording of a conversation between Victoria Nuland, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the US ambassador to Ukraine, was posted anonymously on YouTube. In the leaked tape, Nuland uses an expletive to describe the EU. (Reuters)
Kiev, Feb. 7: The tense Russian-American jockeying over the fate of Ukraine escalated yesterday as a Kremlin official accused Washington of “crudely interfering” in the former Soviet republic, while the Obama administration blamed Moscow for spreading an intercepted private conversation between two American diplomats.
An audiotape of the conversation appeared on the Internet and opened a window into American handling of the political crisis here, as the two diplomats candidly discussed the composition of a possible new government to replace the pro-Russian cabinet of Ukraine’s President, Viktor F. Yanukovych.
It also turned the tables on the Obama administration, which has been under fire lately for spying on foreign leaders.
The developments on the eve of the Winter Olympics opening in Sochi underscored the increasingly Cold War-style contest for influence here as East and West vie for the favour of a nation of 45 million with historic ties to Moscow but a deep yearning to join the rest of Europe.
The tit for tat has been going on since November, when Yanukovych spurned a trade deal with Europe and accepted a $15 billion loan from Moscow.
Months of street protests have threatened his government, and American officials are now trying to broker a settlement — an effort the Kremlin seems determined to block.
The posting of the audiotape represented a striking turn in the situation. It was put anonymously on YouTube on Tuesday under a Russian headline, “Puppets of Maidan”, a reference to the square in Kiev occupied by protesters, and then posted on Twitter yesterday by a Russian government official who called it “controversial”.
The tape captured a four-minute telephone call on January 25 between Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Geoffrey Pyatt, the ambassador to Ukraine, trading their views of the crisis, their assessments of various Opposition leaders and their frustrations with their European counterparts they see as passive.
At one point, Nuland used an expletive to describe what should happen to the EU, a comment for which she apologised yesterday.
Today, Nuland all but admitted that she did say “F*** the EU” in the call.
Nuland told reporters in Kiev that she would not comment on “private diplomatic conversations” but conceded that the recording was “pretty impressive tradecraft ... the audio is very clear”.
She has apologised to European colleagues but the embarrassing leak has laid bare the tensions between western powers over how best to resolve Ukraine’s crisis.
In Berlin, Chancellor Merkel is fuming over the indiscretion. She found Nuland’s insulting remark “totally unacceptable”.
The two US diplomats were discussing Yanukovych’s offer to bring two Opposition leaders, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, into the government as Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister. The Americans clearly favoured Yatsenyuk, a former economics minister. Nuland said Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion, should not go into government.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” Nuland said.
Pyatt expressed hope for a deal to form a new government but warned that Moscow would try to undo their negotiations. “If it does gain altitude, the Russians will be working behind the scenes to torpedo it,” he said.
A link to the secret recording was sent out in a Twitter message yesterday by Dmitry Losukov, an aide to Russia’s deputy Prime Minister, just as Nuland was in Kiev meeting Yanukovych and Opposition leaders.
The White House pointed to that as an indication of Russian involvement, although it said it was not accusing Moscow of taping the call. “I think it says something about Russia’s role,” said Jay Carney, the White House press secretary.