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Leaked diplomatic phone conversation generates outrage over U.S. meddling in Ukraine

February 7, 2014 at 6:13 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now to the diplomatic dust-up in Ukraine that’s generated charges and counter-charges between the U.S. and Russia. It centers on a phone conversation involving two high-level U.S. diplomats.

NewsHour chief foreign affairs correspondent Margaret Warner begins our coverage.

VICTORIA NULAND, Assistant Secretary of State: I am obviously not going to comment on private diplomatic conversations, other than to say it was pretty impressive tradecraft. The audio was extremely clear.

MARGARET WARNER: Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland made that arch comment in Kiev today about those who intercepted a phone call of hers. The call, made two weeks ago, was posted to YouTube this week with Russian subtitles.

It’s generated a furor over the U.S. role in Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovych and his pro-Russian government face a popular uprising. In the call, Nuland and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, discuss the situation and the relative merits of opposition leaders who’ve been invited to join the Yanukovych government, including boxer-turned-politician Vitali Klitschko.

VICTORIA NULAND: I don’t think Klitsch should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea.

GEOFFREY PYATT, ambassador to Ukraine: Yes. I mean, I guess, in terms of him not going into the government, just let him sort of stay out and do his political homework and stuff.

MARGARET WARNER: The Russians, who helped spread the audio recording, say it proves the U.S. is crudely interfering in Ukraine. Kremlin adviser Sergei Glazyev accused Washington of funding and arming the opposition. Nuland today rejected that claim out of hand.

VICTORIA NULAND: With regard to Mr. Glazyev’s statements: complete fantasy. He could be a science fiction writer. It’s — you know, it’s — but it’s quite inventive. It’s quite inventive. The United States is absolutely transparent about what our policy is here in Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: American officials also charged the leaked call was a new low in tradecraft, diplomatic-speak for espionage. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki left little doubt today who the U.S. believes was behind it.

JEN PSAKI, State Department Spokeswoman: The Russians were the first to tweet about this particular call. Only a few countries have the level of capability needed. I will let you use your own judgment.

MARGARET WARNER: The Nuland phone call also revealed tensions with the European Union over to how to manage the Ukraine situation. At one point, Nuland and Pyatt agree it’s best for the United Nations, not the E.U., to help seal a deal for a new government in Ukraine. And Nuland uses an obscenity to make the point.

VICTORIA NULAND: That would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and have the U.N. help glue, and, you know (EXPLETIVE DELETED) the E.U.

MARGARET WARNER: That earned a rebuke today from a spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

CHRISTIANE WIRTZ, Deputy Spokeswoman, German Government (through interpreter): I would like to say that the chancellor finds these remarks totally unacceptable. The European Union will continue their efforts with great intensity to calm down the situation in Ukraine.

MARGARET WARNER: Unrest in Ukraine dates back to November, with protests after president Yanukovych walked away from a trade pact with the E.U. Instead, he embraced a $15 billion loan package from Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The streets calmed over Christmas, but reignited in January, after passage of an anti-protest law. The law has been repealed, but protesters still occupying Maidan Square and government buildings in central Kiev.