Two senior American diplomats, thinking their conversation about 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 and amid continuing criticism of the United States in Europe and elsewhere over NSA spying on foreign leaders.
They also came on the eve of the official opening of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and highlighted the distrust between Washington and Moscow.
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 colourfully suggests that the EU's position should be ignored. "F--- the EU," the female voice said.
An aide to Russian deputy prime minister, Dmitry Rogozin, was among the first to tweet about the YouTube video, which shows photos of Nuland and Pyatt and is subtitled in Russian.
In the tweet, posted some seven hours before existence of the video became widely known on Thursday, the Rogozin aide, Dmitry Loskutov, opined: "Sort of controversial judgment from Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland speaking about the EU."
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.
Psaki said, however, that Moscow's apparent role in publicizing the video was "a new low in Russian tradecraft."
The YouTube video was posted on Feb. 4 and is titled the "Marionettes of Maidan" in Russian. Maidan is the name of the main square in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, which has become the centre of opposition protests.
In the audio, Nuland and Pyatt discuss their views of various opposition figures and whether or not they should take positions in the government.
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 on Thursday.
"It is no secret that Ambassador Pyatt and Assistant Secretary Nuland have been working with the government of Ukraine, with the opposition, with business and civil society leaders to support their efforts," Psaki said. "It shouldn't be a surprise that at any points there have been discussions about recent events and offers and what is happening on the ground."
"Of course these things are being discussed," she said. "It doesn't change the fact that it's up to the people on the ground. It is up to the people of Ukraine to determine what the path forward it."
The practice of eavesdropping on the phone calls of other governments — even between allies — was the first diplomatic fallout from the publication of documents taken by former National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden. The documents he took and that were published in such newspapers as the Washington Post, the New York Times and the Guardian showed that the United States listened in to the phone calls of allies such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel was outraged, and part of the U.S. response was that such practice is common on both sides around the world.