KIEV: German Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed outrage Friday over a leaked conversation in which a top U.S. diplomat used the f-word to disparage the European Union’s handling of the crisis in Ukraine.
The candid remark by the U.S. State Department’s most senior European official threatened to drive a dangerous wedge between the allies in the midst of one their most high-stakes diplomatic tussles with Moscow since the Cold War.
The embarrassing row came as Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovych prepared for crisis talks with his Russian counterpart and ally Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Washington and Brussels have engaged in an intense standoff with Kiev and Moscow over deadly mass protests that erupted in Ukraine in November when Yanukovych rejected an historic pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with old master Russia.
But the leaked phone call hinted strongly at Washington’s mounting frustration with the Europeans’ handling of Ukraine’s worst political crisis since its independence in 1991.
In the recordings, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and Washington’s Kiev ambassador frankly discuss which opposition figures should go into the new Ukrainian government – comments that play directly into Russia’s charges of Western meddling in its neighbor’s affairs.
“That would be great I think to help glue this thing and have the U.N. glue it and you know, f--- the EU,” Nuland says at one point.
Nuland herself did not dispute the authenticity of the call while refusing further comment.
“I will not comment on a private diplomatic conversation,” Nuland told reporters in Kiev Friday.
“It was pretty impressive tradecraft,” she added. “Audio quality was very good.”
The U.S. State Department immediately pointed an incriminating finger at Russia for allegedly bugging diplomats’ phones.
“Certainly we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft,” U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.
But the irritation among top EU leaders focused mostly on Washington rather than the Kremlin – a worrying signal for the U.S. administration amid continuing fallout over its controversial phone and Internet surveillance work.
“The chancellor considers this statement absolutely unacceptable … and wants to emphasize again that [EU foreign policy chief Catherine] Ashton is doing an outstanding job,” a spokeswoman for Merkel said in reference to the recording.
Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt – one of the most fervent supporters of closer EU ties with Kiev – was one of the few European officials to come out in Nuland’s support.
“Tapping phone calls and releasing carefully selected bits to support propaganda efforts is an age-old methods by some type of regimes,” the Swedish politician tweeted.
A spokeswoman for Ukraine’s boxer turned opposition leader Vitali Klitschko – who Nuland suggests would be ill-suited for a senior role in the new government – told AFP that “it does not make sense to comment on conversations whose authenticity has not been confirmed by anyone.”
Moscow also had no official reaction while the Russian government aide whose Twitter posting of the conversation went viral Thursday said that he was browsing the Internet when he saw it on his “friend’s feed in a social network.”
The Russian aide’s tweet of Nuland’s private remarks came on the heels of unusually blunt charges by a top Putin adviser of Washington supplying funding and ammunition to the Kiev protesters.
Nuland Friday dismissed the Kremlin aide’s charges as “consummate fantasy.”
Yanukovych was expected to discuss with Putin the fate of a $15-billion bailout package whose delivery has been effectively frozen pending his decision on a new government.
The embattled Ukrainian leader flew to Sochi shortly after naming his close ally Sergiy Arbuzov as acting prime minister.
As the opened ceremony for the Winter Games got underway, Turkish media said a Ukrainian man had attempted to hijack an airliner en route from Ukraine to Turkey and divert it to Sochi.
An F-16 Turkish military jet was scrambled, forcing the Pegasus Airlines aircraft with some 110 passengers on board to land in Istanbul.
As Ukraine’s political woes deepened, ratings agency Fitch Friday downgraded its credit rating to CCC from B-, citing a marked increase in political instability.
The crisis has seen Ukraine’s borrowing costs spike and the currency lose nearly 10 percent of its value amid a rush by frightened consumers to cut their losses by stocking up on dollars and euros.
Several banks have reported dollar shortages and the central bank was Friday forced to impose temporary exchange restrictions while moving the currency’s official rate against the greenback to 8.7 from 7.9 hryvnias – its first shift of the peg since July 2012.
The central bank’s new control measures include a $5,500 monthly limit on the amount of foreign currency that can be obtained by individuals.