WASHINGTON – Two senior American diplomats, thinking their conversation about the Ukraine was secure and private, were caught disparaging the European Union in a phone call that was apparently bugged, and U.S. officials say they strongly suspect Russia of leaking the conversation.
The suspicions were aired Thursday after audio of the call was posted to the Internet amid continuing criticism of the United States in Europe and elsewhere over NSA spying on foreign leaders.
They also came as the Russia-hosted Winter Olympics opened under tight security to prevent possible terrorist attacks and highlighted distrust between Washington and Moscow that has thrived despite the Obama administration’s attempt to reset relations with the Kremlin.
The White House and State Department stopped just short of directly accusing Russia of surreptitiously recording the call between the top US diplomat for Europe, Victoria Nuland, and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt.
But both took pains to point out that a Russian government official was the first or among the first to call attention to the audio of the conversation that was posted on YouTube. The State Department said the incident marked a new low in Russian tradecraft.
White House spokesman Jay Carney pointed to the Russian official’s tweet and Russia’s clear interest in what has become a struggle between pro-Moscow and pro-Western camps in the former Soviet Republic.
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, Carney told reporters. He would not comment on the substance of the conversation, in which the Nuland and Pyatt voices also discuss their opinion of various Ukrainian opposition figures.
In the audio, voices resembling those of Nuland and Pyatt discuss international efforts to resolve Ukraine’s ongoing political crisis. At one point, the Nuland voice colorfully suggests that the EU’s position should be ignored. F--- the EU, the female voice said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki did not dispute the authenticity of the recording and said that Nuland had apologized to European Union officials for her remarks.
The U.S. has repeatedly denied allegations, many of them from Russian officials, that it is taking sides in the Ukraine crisis and Psaki repeated that stance Thursday.