A conversation between a State Department official and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine posted on YouTube revealed a frank exchange on U.S. strategy for a political transition in that country, including a crude swipe at the European Union.
In the audio posted on Tuesday, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland told U.S. Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt she doesn't think Vitaly Klitschko, the boxer-turned-politician who is a main opposition leader, should be in a new government.
"So I don't think Klitsch (Klitschko) should go into the government," she said in the recording, which appeared to describe events that occurred in late January. "I don't think it's necessary. I don't think it's a good idea."
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Nuland met on Thursday with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich to discuss a solution to anti-government protests that have swept the former Soviet republic since November. They discussed political reform and possible further negotiations between Yanukovich and opposition leaders, his website said.
U.S. officials, while declining to confirm the tape's contents, did not dispute its authenticity.
"I did not say it was not authentic," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said at a news briefing.
She said Nuland had apologized to her EU counterparts for the reported comments.
The leaked conversation appeared certain to embarrass the United States and fuel charges that the Ukrainian opposition is being manipulated by Washington.
In the YouTube audio, Nuland and Pyatt are heard discussing strategies to work with the three main opposition figures: Klitschko, Arseny Yatseniuk, former Ukrainian economy minister, and Oleh Tyahnybok, far-right nationalist opposition leader.
Nuland referred to getting the United Nations involved in a political solution in Kyiv.
"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," she said in the recording, which was accompanied by still pictures of people mentioned in the call.
Pyatt responded: "Exactly. And I think we've got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty
sure that if it does start to gain altitude, the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it."
U.S. mum on leaked conversation
The date of the conversation was not specified but the events it describes appeared to have taken place in the last days of January.
U.S. officials would not discuss the recording.
"I'm not going to comment on the content of private diplomatic conversations," said White House spokesman Jay Carney. "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."
Psaki also criticized Russian officials' publicizing of the tape as "a new low in Russian tradecraft" and denied Washington was trying to meddle or engineer a particular outcome in Kyiv.
"Absolutely not," she said. "It should be no surprise that U.S. officials talk about issues around the world. Of course we do. That's what diplomats do."
From the same YouTube account, which has previously carried video showing protesters in a poor light, a recording purporting to be between two EU officials was posted on the same day. They reflect annoyance that U.S. officials were telling the media the EU was too "soft" on Yanukovich.
'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.' - U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland
A spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the EU would not comment on "leaked alleged" conversation.
The simultaneous release of the recordings appeared designed to both discredit the Western powers' involvement in Ukraine and, possibly, to drive a wedge between Brussels and Washington.
Separately on Thursday, a senior Kremlin aide accused the United States of arming Ukrainian "rebels" and warned Russia could intervene to maintain the security of its neighbour.
'Puppets of Maidan'
Posted anonymously, its headline "Puppets of Maidan" clearly aimed to portray opposition leaders as stooges of the U.S. diplomats, who were discussing how the opposition might take up an offer from Yanukovich to form a government.
"Maidan," the Ukrainian word for "square," serves as the name of the whole protest movement that started in Kyiv's central Independence Square in November. Critics of Yanukovich have been occupying the square nonstop ever since.
There was no immediate comment from Moscow but the video clearly plays into Russian accusations that the West is meddling in Ukraine. Russia sees Ukraine as its sphere of influence and has offered the cash-strapped Kyiv a $16.6 billion bailout to keep it in its orbit.
Protests began when Yanukovich spurned an EU trade agreement last year in pursuit of closer ties with Russia.
Protesters have since taken over public buildings and staged mass rallies, sometimes clashing violently with police, in the capital Kyiv and other cities.
"I think (Yatseniuk) is the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience. What he needs is (Klitschko) and (Tyahnybok) on the outside. He needs to be talking to them four times a week," Nuland said in the tape.
Pyatt suggested Nuland contact Klitschko personally to play to his "top dog" sensibilities.
"I think you reaching out directly to him helps with the personality management among the three and it gives you also a chance to move fast on all this stuff and put us behind it before they all sit down and he explains why he doesn't like it," he said.