ANDREW HIGGINS & PETER BAKER
The tense Russian-American jockeying over the fate of Ukraine escalated on Thursday as a Kremlin official accused Washington of “crudely interfering” in the former Soviet republic, while the Obama administration blamed Moscow for spreading an intercepted private conversation between two American diplomats.
An audiotape of the conversation appeared on the Internet and opened a window into US handling of the political crisis here, as the two diplomats candidly discussed the composition of a possible new government to replace the pro-Russian cabinet of Ukraine’s president, Viktor Yanukovych. It also turned the tables on the Obama administration, which has been under fire lately for spying on foreign leaders.
It was put anonymously on YouTube on Tuesday under a Russian headline, Puppets of Maidan, a reference to the square in Kiev occupied by protesters, and then posted on Twitter on Thursday by a Russian government official who called it “controversial.” The tape captured a four-minute telephone call on Jan. 25 between Victoria Nuland, assistant secretary of state, and Geoffrey Pyatt, ambassador to Ukraine, trading their views of the crisis, assessments of various opposition leaders and frustrations with European counterparts they see as passive. At one point, Nuland used an expletive to describe what should happen to European Union, a comment for which she apologized Thursday.
Pyatt expressed hope for a deal to form a new government but warned that Moscow would try to undo their negotiations. “If it does gain altitude, the Russians will be working behind the scenes to torpedo it,” he said.
A link to the secret recording was sent out in a Twitter message on Thursday by Dmitry Losukov, an aide to Russia’s deputy prime minister. The White House pointed to that as an indication of Russian involvement, although it said it was not accusing Moscow of taping the call. “I think it says something about Russia’s role,” said Jay Carney, White House press secretary. Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman, criticized Moscow for promoting it. “Certainly, we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft,” she said.