U.S. diplomat caught on tape; officials point finger at Russia

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WASHINGTON -- Obama administration officials have grumbled for months about what they see as world leaders’ faux outrage over revelations of U.S. spying.

Countries spy on one another, President Obama has said. The U.S. is a target as well as a player in the international game of espionage.

His administration got some unwanted -- and colorful -- evidence of that point this week, when an audio recording of what appeared to be two U.S. diplomats candidly plotting a response to the political crisis in Ukraine was circulated online.


The conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey R. Pyatt exposed tension between the United States and some of its closest Western allies over how aggressively to intervene in the former Soviet state, which has been rocked by protests and violence.

At one point, Nuland expresses pointed frustration with the European Union, using a blunt expletive.

Top U.S. officials did not dispute the recording’s authenticity, and a State Department spokeswoman told reporters that Nuland had been in touch with EU officials and had apologized.

State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki would not say precisely to whom or for what Nuland apologized, and said she would not comment on the content of the discussion. But Psaki and other U.S. officials strongly suggested that Russia was the source of the embarrassing leak, which was notable for its clear, high-quality audio.

Nuland, a former State Department spokeswoman, is easily recognized on the tape. Though the source of the audio is unknown -- it was posted anonymously on YouTube -- White House Press Secretary Jay Carney noted that a Russian official was among the first to discuss it via Twitter.

“I think it says something about Russia’s role,” Carney told reporters on Thursday, declining to elaborate.


Psaki described the incident as “a new low in Russian tradecraft.”

“This is something they’ve been actively promoting, posting on, tweeting about, and certainly we feel that represents a new low,” she said.

Russian officials have repeatedly accused the U.S. of inappropriate meddling in Ukraine, where President Viktor Yanukovich drew outrage from opposition forces for backing away from a deal in November for closer trade ties with the EU in favor of strengthening connections with Moscow.

The release of the recording could be a sign of Russia’s willingness to challenge the United States, even though it could further sour a relationship already under strain over issues such as the war in Syria, nuclear weapons, human rights and the harboring of National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, analysts said.

The Russian government would appear to want to show Ukrainians that U.S. officials are meddling in their affairs. But the recording could also be interpretated as evidence that Putin’s government is still willing to use Cold War-style tactics.

The European Union has been more reluctant to become embroiled in the turmoil in the Ukraine -- at times a source of aggravation for U.S. officials who have been trying to broker a deal to resolve the crisis. Nuland appears to express that frustration in the leaked conversation.

She and Pyatt seem to be discussing Yanukovich’s offer to bring two opposition leaders into the government. They express concern about the possible inclusion of one in particular, Vitali Klitschko, a popular former boxer.


Nuland says she didn’t think Klitschko should be part of the government. “I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she says.

Another contender, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, appears to have the U.S. officials’ backing. The two diplomats later discuss plans for the United Nations to send an envoy to Ukraine to help cement a deal. Nuland says U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has signed off on the plan.

“That would be great, I think, to help glue this thing and let the U.N. help glue it and” forget the EU, she says, using an expletive.

“Exactly,” Pyatt responds. If the agreement isn’t reinforced in this way, he says, “the Russians will be working behind the scene to try to torpedo it.”

Pyatt adds that an “international personality” could help. Nuland notes that Vice President Joe Biden in on board to call Yatsenyuk to deliver support.

Events did not go according to the diplomats’ plans. Yatsenyuk and Klitschko declined to join the government in late January, rebuffing Yanukovich’s offer.


Twitter: @khennessey

Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.