A top US diplomat tried to play down the damage to Washington’s diplomacy in Ukraine from a leaked telephone call on Friday, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel called an obscene remark about the EU “absolutely unacceptable.”
US officials blamed Moscow for the Internet leak of recordings of US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the US ambassador in Kiev discussing a possible future government for Ukraine, where Washington and Brussels back anti-Kremlin demonstrators.
On Friday, Nuland tried to limit the diplomatic fallout from her comment.
“I am not going to comment on private diplomatic conversations, but it was pretty impressive tradecraft. The audio was extremely clear,” she told reporters during a visit to Kiev.
She said she did not foresee damage to relations with opposition leaders, saying they “know exactly where we stand in respect of a non-violent solution to the problem.”
Of relations with Russia, she said Washington and Moscow had “very deep, very broad and complex” discussions on a range of international issues, including Iran and “frank and comradely discussions” on Ukraine.
Western officials described the leaks as a throwback to the cloak-and-dagger tactics of the Cold War, apparently aimed as much at sowing discord among Western allies as at discrediting the opposition in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people on the verge of bankruptcy, torn between East and West.
In the call, Nuland is heard using an expletive to tell the US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt it would be better if a new Ukrainian government is backed by the UN than the EU.
“Fuck the EU,” she says.
US officials did not deny the authenticity of the recording and said Nuland apologized to EU colleagues for the comment.
Merkel, already furious with Washington for several months over reports that US officials bugged her own telephone, found Nuland’s remarks “totally unacceptable,” a spokeswoman for the German chancellor said.
In a separate leaked recording, an Ashton aide is overheard complaining about the US for telling Ukrainian opposition members that Brussels was “soft” in its reluctance to impose measures, such as sanctions, to hurt the pro-Russian government.
Some US officials blamed Moscow for leaking the call, saying that the recording, posted anonymously, was first highlighted in a tweet from a Russian official.
In Washington, US officials said Nuland and Pyatt apparently used unencrypted cellphones, which are easy to monitor. The officials said smartphones issued to US Department of State officials had data encryption, but not voice encryption.
In Nuland’s call, apparently recorded about 12 days ago, when Ukrainian opposition leaders were considering an offer from Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to join his Cabinet, she suggested that one of three leading figures might accept a post, but two others should stay out. In the end, all three rejected the offer.
Yanukovych must name a new prime minister after sacking a pro-Russian loyalist in a concession to demonstrators only to fail to persuade opposition leaders to take his place.
Russia, which bailed out Ukraine with an offer of US$15 billion in cheap gas and loans after Yanukovych snubbed the EU trade pact, has cut off the funds until it learns who the new Ukrainian prime minister will be. Yanukovych may discuss it with Russian President Vladimir Putin.