Leaked Call Controversy Highlights Global Tension Over Ukraine

A  controversial tape in which a U.S. official lobbed an expletive towards the EU reveals more about the struggles between the U.S. and Russia over influence in the Ukraine than Washington's feelings towards Brussels. 

This article is from the archive of our partner .

Yesterday, the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland received some flack for allegedly saying "Fuck the EU," in a conversation with a man who sounds like U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt that was surreptitiously taped and uploaded to YouTube. The tape, which was publicized by a Russian official on Twitter, reveals more about the struggles between the U.S. and Russia over influence in the Ukraine than Washington's feelings towards Brussels.

The late January recording was implicitly confirmed as authentic by the state department, which said Nuland "of course has apologized," to EU counterparts. In it, Nuland and Pyatt discuss the future of the Ukraine, where activists have been staging anti-government protests for months. The remark in question follows Nuland's contention that the UN might send a representative to the embattled nation to "help glue this thing." Nuland seems to be taking issue with the EU for not taking more responsibility for the crisis in Kiev, which was sparked by Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's last-minute decision to back out of an EU-Ukraine trade deal in order to accept a bailout from Russia, instead.

A protester in Kiev. AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti

Though "Fuck the EU," is certainly inflammatory, another part of the conversation is perhaps more significant: The BBC reports that Pyatt responded to Nuland by saying, "We've got 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."

The U.S. seems more concerned with this, Russia's interference in the Ukraine and Washington's diplomatic process, than of offending the EU. According to State Department Spokeswoman Jan Psaki, officials suspect that the conversation was recorded and leaked by Russia. She says, "We think this is a new low in Russian trade-craft. This is something they've been actively promoting, posting on, tweeting about." White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said he thinks the leak "says something about Russia's role," but that this doesn't mean Moscow recorded the conversation.

Dmitry Loskutov, who serves as an aide to the Russian deputy prime minister, sent out a tweet linking to the video, calling Nuland's words a "controversial judgment,"

Loskutov said on Twitter that he was not the first to spread the recording around, responding to questions in a rather casual manner.

Though Russia may not be responsible for the tape, officials are using it to make clear their feelings on Washington's role in the protests. One Kremlin official said the U.S. is "crudely interfering" in the Ukraine's business. This fear of U.S. intervention is tacitly confirmed by protester Dmytro Bulatov, who said he had been brutally beaten by men with Russian accents, reported that they also questioned him about Western funding for protests. The New York Times reports:

[Bulatov] said his captors “made me say that I was an American spy, that I worked for the Central Intelligence Agency” and that American diplomats had given money “to create disorder.” All of this was untrue, he added, but “I lied because I could not stand the pain.”

The struggle between the U.S. and Russia for control in Ukraine is par for the course, as Reuters reports:

The showdown over Ukraine produced frosty Cold War rhetoric, with a Kremlin aide warning Moscow might act to block U.S. "interference" in Kiev. U.S.-Russian relations have long been cool, but the ferocity of the exchanges was a mark of globally diverging interests - and of the importance of Ukraine, an ex-Soviet state of 46 million people that Putin wants to keep in Moscow's orbit despite mass street demonstrations against Russian influence.

It seems, for now, that Moscow is winning the battle for influence. Russian President Vladimir Putin said he will follow through on the promise to give Ukraine $15 billion in bailout funds, which are sorely needed, even if the opposition takes charge of a new Ukrainian government. But Yanukovych is currently in Sochi to meet with Putin, where the two are expected to discuss the country's future, and it would be surprising if Putin does not expect some say in determining Ukraine's new guard.

While Washington and Moscow are entrenched in the international tug-of-war, protesters in Ukraine remain committed to the cause, and are not pleased with how the situation is playing out. Ukraine's economy has suffered during the period of unrest, and activists remain committed to seeing Yanukovych step down. One protester commented to Bloomberg Businessweek, "The people have been out freezing for three months and Yanukovych is going to the subtropics? He should be working every day to solve the crisis, not meeting his pal Putin in Sochi."

Update: One person who is upset by the EU snub is German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who thinks Nuland's words are way out of line. According to German spokeswoman Cristiane Wirtz, Merkel "finds these remarks totally unacceptable and wants to emphasize that [EU foreign policy chief] Mrs. Ashton is doing an outstanding job."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.