TWO senior United States diplomats, thinking their conversation about Ukraine was secure and private, have been caught disparaging the European Union in a phone call that was apparently bugged – and US officials suspect Russia of leaking the conversation.
Assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland has apologised after she referred to the EU’s role in Ukraine during a conversation said to be with the country’s US ambassador, Geoffrey Pyatt.
During the bugged call, voices resembling those of Ms Nuland and Mr Pyatt discuss international efforts to resolve Ukraine’s ongoing political crisis.
At one point, the Nuland voice suggests Europe’s position should be ignored. “F*** the EU,” the female voice says.
German chancellor Angela Merkel said the apparent insult about the EU’s efforts to mediate in the Ukraine crisis was “totally unacceptable”.
US state department spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not dispute the authenticity of the recording and said Ms Nuland had apologised to EU officials for her remarks.
She added, however, that Moscow’s apparent role in publicising the video was “a new low in Russian tradecraft”.
Suspicions about Russia’s involvement were raised after audio of the call was posted to the internet, amid ongoing criticism in Europe and elsewhere of the US National Security Agency spying on foreign leaders.
The news came as the Winter Olympics opened in Russia under tight security, and it highlighted distrust between Washington and Moscow that has thrived despite the Obama administration’s attempt to “reset” relations with the Kremlin.
The White House and state department stopped just short of directly accusing Russia of surreptitiously recording the call. But both highlighted how a Russian government official had been the first to bring attention to the audio of the conversation that was posted on YouTube.
Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to Russian deputy prime minister Dmitry Rogozin, was among the first to tweet about the video, some seven hours before its existence became widely known.
White House spokesman Jay Carney pointed to Mr Loskutov’s tweet and Russia’s interest in what has become a struggle between pro-Moscow and pro-western camps in Ukraine. “I would say that since the video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government, I think it says something about Russia’s role,” Mr Carney told reporters.
The YouTube video is titled the “Marionettes of Maidan” in Russian. Maidan is the name of the main square in Ukrainian capital Kiev, which has become the centre of opposition protests.
In the audio, Ms Nuland and Mr Pyatt discuss various opposition figures and whether or not they should take positions in the government.
The US has repeatedly denied allegations, many of them from Russian officials, that it is taking sides in the Ukraine crisis, and Ms Psaki repeated that stance.
“It is no secret that ambassador Pyatt and assistant secretary Nuland have been working with the government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts,” she said. “It shouldn’t be a surprise that there have been discussions about recent events and what is happening on the ground.”