Some undiplomatic language by the top U.S. diplomat for Europe has rattled relations with the European Union and added more tension to the East-West strains over Ukraine’s political crisis.
“F--k the EU,” Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland said in a private phone call, expressing frustration with European Union efforts to resolve Ukraine’s political turmoil.
On the eve of Russia’s showcase Olympics in Sochi, the U.S. suggested yesterday that Moscow’s intelligence apparatus was involved in some way with the leaked recording of the intercepted phone call between Nuland and U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt. The call was made last month, based on references in the discussion.
Nuland today called the audio recording “impressive tradecraft” -- a word used to describe espionage activity. The clip, posted on Google Inc.’s YouTube by an unidentified individual, was subtitled in Russian rather than Ukrainian and accompanied by photographs and images of people mentioned in the call. Nuland spoke at a briefing in Kiev after arriving yesterday for talks in the Ukrainian capital. She declined to discuss the conversation further.
While saying the U.S. doesn’t know who recorded the call or posted it, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin was the first to draw attention to it in a posting on Twitter Inc. The aide, Dmitry Loskutov, tweeted in English: “Sort of controversial judgment from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking about the EU.”
“We think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft, in terms of publicizing, posting,” Psaki told reporters yesterday in Washington.
The U.S. shouldn’t try to lay its fault at someone else’s door, said a Russian diplomat in Moscow, who asked not to be identified, citing the sensitivity of the issue.
Psaki didn’t dispute the authenticity of the recording and said Nuland has called EU officials to apologize.
“The EU is engaged in helping the people of Ukraine through the current political crisis,” Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the bloc’s foreign-affairs chief, Catherine Ashton, said in an e-mailed statement. “We don’t comment on leaked alleged telephone conversations.”
Psaki joked that those who know her aren’t surprised by Nuland’s language in private conversations.
“You may know the story of how she lived on a Russian boat for about eight months when she was 23, and she learned how to perfect, perhaps, certain words in a couple of languages,” Psaki said.
She is also familiar with Cold War-style techniques. Nuland, 52, a former State Department spokeswoman who speaks Russian and French, began her career covering the Soviet Union’s internal politics at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow and also served on the Soviet Desk in Washington from 1988 to 1990. She is now assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, which includes Russia.
The disclosure of eavesdropping on a U.S. official follows months of controversy about the American electronic snooping made public by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden, who has been given asylum in Russia as he seeks to avoid U.S. prosecution for disseminating classified information.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who called President Barack Obama in October to demand an explanation after revelations that her private telephone conversations were monitored by the U.S., regards Nuland’s comment as “absolutely unacceptable,” government spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz told reporters in Berlin. Asked whether Nuland had also apologized to the German government, Wirtz said “there has been contact” made with the Chancellery.
“The chancellor wants to underline again that Ms. Ashton is doing an excellent job and that the European Union will continue to make intensive efforts to calm the situation in Ukraine,” Wirtz said.
The recorded call may cause trouble for the Ukrainian political opposition, which has tried to fend off Russian assertions that it’s acting on behalf of Western interests.
Russian officials have said that the pro-Western protests that began last year against President Viktor Yanukovych are being financed and directed by the U.S. and Europe governments. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said last week that European governments helped incite street violence by backing the protest.
White House spokesman spokesman Jay Carney told reporters in Washington yesterday it is “certainly no secret” that U.S. officials “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.”
On the phone call, Nuland discussed which opposition figures should and shouldn’t join a new government in Kiev under an offer last month by Yanukovych. The Ukrainian president proposed that opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk would become prime minister and another opposition figure, former boxer Vitali Klitschko, would become deputy prime minister.
Nuland said she was agreeable toward “Yats” taking the post, though, “I don’t think Klits should go into the government. I don’t think it’s necessary, I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“I guess, in terms of him not going into the government, just let him stay out and do his political homework,” responded Pyatt. “I’m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead, we want to move the moderate democrats together and the problem is going to be” Oleh Tyahnybok, who is another protest leader, and his followers.
“I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” Nuland said.
The two opposition figures turned down Yanukovych’s offer. Nuland met yesterday with the Ukrainian president in Kiev.
Pyatt said Klitschko has been the “top dog” in the opposition and urged Nuland to “reach out to him.” He said that “Russians will be working behind the scenes to torpedo” a deal.
Nuland today said the U.S., the ambassador and she “have strong, close relationships with each of the key members of the opposition.” The U.S. will provide “substantial” support for a Ukraine that is carrying out reforms and called for a government that can work with the International Monetary Fund and the international community, she said.
Most important is to de-escalate tensions between government forces and protesters, Nuland said today.
On the call, the two Americans also discussed administration efforts to persuade United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to send an envoy, Robert Serry, a former Dutch ambassador to Kiev, to help facilitate a political agreement.
“So that would be great I think to help glue this thing, and have the UN help glue it, and you know, f--k the EU,” Nuland said.
She also suggested arranging to have Vice President Joe Biden give an “atta boy” call to Yanukovych to keep pressure on him for a deal. Biden has made four phone calls to Yanukovych since Jan. 27, according to White House statements.
Balazs Jarabik, a senior fellow at the Central European Policy Institute, a policy group based in Bratislava, Slovakia, said that Ukrainians were discussing the leaked Nuland call.
“The issue is that the EU cannot really choose what policy to choose and what policy would be the necessary follow-up on the Ukrainian crisis,” Jarabik said.
While Russia and the U.S. jockey over the future orientation of Ukraine, Oleksiy Semeniy, who was a chief adviser to former President Viktor Yushchenko’s foreign affairs department, said “almost all options are open, and the situation changes almost every week.”
Until the end of the Olympics, Semeniy said, there’s likely to be no crucial changes to Russia’s position. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal is to ensure that Russia doesn’t “lose control over its so-called area of influence,” Semeniy said on a phone call with reporters arranged by the Atlantic Council, a Washington policy group
The West, and particularly the U.S., has shown a “dramatic escalation” in engagement with Ukraine, probably to take advantage of “the opportunity of Russia so-called distancing itself because of the Olympics,” Semeniy said. “It’s a huge contrast to the position even seven months ago, because seven months ago we couldn’t speak about dramatic actions by the West,” he said.