Leaked Ukraine Phone Call Puts U.S. Credibility On The Line

An apparent private telephone conversation between two senior American diplomats about the crisis in Ukraine has surfaced on YouTube. In the call, which has not yet been authenticated, the two participants discuss the relative merits of the leaders of Ukraine's opposition movement. One of the callers is also vehemently critical of the European Union. There's speculation that the call is between the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and Victoria Nuland, the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

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An embarrassing moment today for the U.S. State Department. A recording surfaced on YouTube, purportedly of two senior U.S. diplomats talking about Ukraine. The timing was inconvenient. The assistant secretary of State for Europe is in Kiev to talk about how to resolve the political crisis there. And the contents of the recording were also embarrassing. It's a discussion of who should or shouldn't be in any new Ukrainian government, along with some sharp criticism of the European Union. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: For a former State Department spokesperson, this was a PR disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

VICTORIA NULAND: So I don't think Klitsch should go into the government. I don't think it's necessary. I don't think it's a good idea.

KELEMEN: The recorded telephone conversation posted on YouTube sounds like former spokesperson and now Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland talking with the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine about which members of the Ukrainian opposition should join a coalition government. Nuland had choice words for the European Union's efforts to resolve the crisis.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

NULAND: And, you know, (bleep) the EU.

KELEMEN: State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki wouldn't confirm what she says was meant to be a private diplomatic conversation but she also did not raise any doubts about the authenticity of the tape. And she says Nuland has had to respond.

JEN PSAKI: She has been in contact with her EU counterparts and, of course, has apologized.

KELEMEN: The White House suggested that Russia might have been behind the recording. Psaki says she doesn't know who posted the YouTube video, but she points out that Russian officials were the first to tweet about it.

PSAKI: This is a new low in Russian trade craft.

KELEMEN: The recording plays right into the hands of the Russians, who often complain about US meddling in the former Soviet Republic of Ukraine. The title of the YouTube video was "Maidan Marionnettes," suggesting that the protesters in Kiev's main square are puppets of the U.S. Psaki dismisses the idea that the U.S. is cooking up some political deal. But the director of the Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center, Matthew Rojansky, says the U.S. is losing credibility, in part because of this recording.

MATTHEW ROJANSKY: It's pretty clear that at least this group of U.S. officials has picked sides. I mean, putting forward candidates to serve in particular positions, talking about, you know, one option or another option is in play does not suggest the kind of, if not impartiality, at least credibility that would be needed to play a productive role.

KELEMEN: Rojansky says the U.S. wasn't paying enough attention to Ukraine before the street protests broke out late last year and doesn't really understand the complexity of Ukrainian politics. And he says Washington should be working closely not just with the Europe Union but also with Russia.

ROJANSKY: I'm not sure that the Russians are demonstrating a whole lot more strategic thinking than the United States at this point. It's clearly in the interests of both Moscow and Washington and Brussels to be talking to one another first and to have some degree of trust.

KELEMEN: Nuland's apology to the European Union was a first step. Former ambassador to Ukraine, Steven Pifer of the Brookings Institution, is sounding hopeful that she will be able to put this embarrassing recording behind her.

STEVEN PIFER: What's going on in Ukraine in my view is being driven first and foremost by Ukrainians. I think the United States and the EU have some ability to influence the margins. But the idea that the Americans and the Europeans are directing this is just silly.

KELEMEN: Nuland is, though, still in the mix. She's in Ukraine now meeting with the country's president and with opposition leaders. Michele Keleman, NPR News, the State Department.

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