Washington: After months of taking grief for snooping on foreign leaders, the Obama administration found itself on the other side on Thursday after a private telephone call between two US diplomats appeared on the Internet in a breach that the White House tied to Russia.
In the recording, an assistant secretary of state and the ambassador to Ukraine are heard talking about the political crisis in Kiev, their views of how it might be resolved, their assessments of the various opposition leaders and their frustrations with their European counterparts. At one point, one of the officials uses an expletive to describe the EU.
The conversation opened a window into the American handling of the crisis and could easily inflame passions in Kiev, Brussels and Moscow, where the role of the United States has been controversial. The White House suggested on Thursday that Russia, which has jockeyed with the United States and Europe for influence in Ukraine, played some role in the interception or dissemination of the conversation.
Ukraine's President Viktor Yanukovych, left, greets US Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland in Kiev. Photo: AP
"The video was first noted and tweeted out by the Russian government," Jay Carney, the White House press secretary, told reporters. "I think it says something about Russia's role."
Asked if he was accusing Russia of recording the conversation, Carney said, "I'm not. I'm just noting that they tweeted it out."
Another administration official privately confirmed the authenticity of the recording, which was posted anonymously on YouTube Tuesday and reported on Thursday by Kyiv Post. The recording was posted under a Russian headline, "Puppets ofMaidan," referring to the square occupied by protesters. The conversation was between Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European affairs, and Geoffrey R. Pyatt, the ambassador to Ukraine.
A link to the secret recording was sent out in a Twitter message earlier on Thursday by the account of Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to Russia's deputy prime minister.
"Sort of controversial judgment from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking about the EU," the message said, trying to drive a wedge between the United States and Europe.
Obama administration officials took that as confirmation of their suspicion that the conversation was intercepted or at least disseminated by Russia's government, which has sheltered Edward J. Snowden, the National Security Agency contractor who exposed American eavesdropping of foreign leaders like Angela Merkel of Germany.
While the revelation prompted the White House to cancel surveillance of friendly foreign leaders like Ms Merkel, administration officials defended themselves by noting that many governments spy on US officials as well. US diplomats have long assumed that their telephone calls were tapped by Moscow, but rarely if ever have the Russians made recordings public.
The administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the fact that this one was made public was a sign of desperation by the Russians, who in this view are trying to stop the Americans from brokering a settlement of the standoff between President Viktor Yanukovych and the Ukrainian opposition. It came to light even as Ms Nuland was in Kiev on Thursday talking with both Mr Yanukovych and opposition leaders.
In the recorded call, Mr Nuland and Ms Pyatt were talking about an offer made on January 25 by Ms Yanukovych to bring two opposition leaders, Arseniy P. Yatsenyuk and Vitali Klitschko, into the government as prime minister and deputy prime minister, respectively. The two Americans described Mr Yatsenyuk, a former economics minister, in favourable terms, but viewed Mr Klitschko, a former world heavyweight boxing champion now serving in Parliament, more warily.
"The Klitschko piece is obviously the complicated electron here," Mr Pyatt said.
Ms Nuland suggested that Mr Klitschko should not go into the government. "I don't think it's necessary," she said. "I don't think it's a good idea."
Mr Pyatt concurred. "In terms of him not going into the government, just let him sort of stay out and do his political homework and stuff," the ambassador said. "I'm just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead; we want to keep the moderate democrats together."
Ms Nuland described Mr Yatsenyuk as "the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience," and said that Mr Klitschko's working for him was "just not going to work."
Mr Pyatt called Mr Yatsenyuk "the top dog" among the opposition leaders and suggested that Ms Nuland call him directly.
Ms Nuland seemed frustrated that European leaders had not put enough pressure on Mr Yanukovych to respond to protesters upset with his decision not to sign a trade agreement with the EU. She told Mr Pyatt that Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, was preparing to send an envoy to Ukraine, which would "help glue this thing and to have the UN glue it."
"And you know," she said, and then used an expletive to say what could be done to "the EU."
"Exactly," Mr Pyatt said. He expressed concern that "the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it," and agreed that there would be value in an "international personality" traveling to Kiev to "midwife this thing."
Ms Nuland said that she could get Vice President Joe Biden to call Mr Yanukovych for "an atta boy" encouraging moves to work with the opposition, and that "Biden's willing."
Ultimately, Mr Yatsenyuk and Mr Klitschko declined to join the government later on January 25. Mr Biden called Mr Yanukovych three days later, the day Prime Minister Mykola Azarov stepped down. Protests continue.
Ms Nuland was in Kiev on Thursday trying to broker a deal to de-escalate the confrontation by assuring amnesty for protesters, moving demonstrations back from public buildings and restarting negotiations. Over a longer term, the Obama administration is trying to persuade Mr Yanukovych to make constitutional and electoral changes that would allow for opposition participation in government and eventually lead to economic assistance from the International Monetary Fund.
Ms Nuland met with opposition leaders on Thursday and spent four hours with Mr Yanukovych, who later released a statement saying that he was ready to return to negotiations with the opposition and would accelerate the release of jailed protesters.
"It is only through dialogue and compromise that we can overcome the political crisis," Mr Yanukovych said.
After the intercepted telephone conversation became widely reported Thursday, Ms Nuland spoke with EU officials to smooth over any ruffled feathers. Reached by telephone in Kiev, Ms Nuland referred questions to the State Department but seemed more amused than angry.
"It's all part of the job," she said.
New York Times