Leaked U.S. phone call about Ukraine draws anger from Russia, EU

BY Zachary Treu  February 7, 2014 at 2:05 PM EST
Victoria Nuland’s alleged explicit comments about the EU’s involvement in Ukraine has caused controversy. Photo by Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Flickr

Victoria Nuland’s alleged explicit comments about the EU’s involvement in Ukraine has caused controversy. Photo by Greece’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Flickr

A taped and leaked telephone conversation between two U.S. politicians about the future of Ukrainian politics — which included an explicit comment about the European Union — has caused a diplomatic flap, exacerbating tensions between the United States and Russia.

Reuters reported Friday that German Chancellor Angela Merkel found the comment “absolutely unacceptable,” according to a spokeswoman for the chancellor. She also expressed support for the EU and its foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton.

The phone recording features voices resembling those of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discussing strategies for Ukraine, where anti-government protests have continued since November. The conversation appears to have taken place in late January, when opposition leaders rejected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s offer of cabinet positions.

The audio was anonymously posted on YouTube Tuesday under the heading “Puppets of Maidan” — referring to Kiev’s Maidan Square, which protesters are still occupying. In the video, voices attributed to Nuland and Pyatt talk about the merits of the opposition’s leaders and the possible role of the United Nations in helping to resolve the situation.

In the conversation, the voice reported to be Nuland’s says that Arseniy Yatseniuk, one of the opposition’s leaders, has “got the economic experience, the governing experience” and should join Yanukovych’s cabinet. She argues that two of the other leaders, Oleh Tyahnybok and former boxer Vitaly Klitschko, should remain on the outside and offer advice to Yatseniuk. None of the three accepted government positions.

At one point, the voice resembling Nuland’s says the United Nations could “help glue this thing” and uses an expletive about the EU.

Jen Psaki, a U.S. State Department spokeswoman, did not dispute the authenticity of the recording, but suggested that Russia had a hand in its release.

“Certainly, we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft,” she said.

A link to the YouTube video was posted on Twitter by Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to Russia’s deputy prime minister. Loskutov later interacted with a New York Times reporter on Twitter, saying that “disseminating started earlier” and that he first saw the video on a “social network.”

On Thursday, White House spokesperson Jay Carney also suggested that Russia was involved in the recording. “I think it says something about Russia’s role,” he said.

Carney denied that the American government was trying to control what happens in Ukraine:

“It’s certainly no secret that our ambassador and assistant secretary have been working with the government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts to find a peaceful solution through dialogue and political and economic reform. … Ultimately, it’s up to the Ukrainian people to decide their future.”

A senior aide for Russian President Vladimir Putin has accused Washington of “interfering in Ukraine’s domestic affairs,” the BBC reported.

Last week on the PBS NewsHour, Judy Woodruff spoke with Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution about the ongoing situation in Ukraine.