Nuland phone leak: When Ukraine divides old allies

  • 7 February 2014
  • From the section Europe
  • comments
Media captionListen: The conversation was leaked online, as Mark Mardell reports

The stand-off in Ukraine is creating new tensions. The country of 46 million people finds itself in the middle, with Russia pulling from one side and the EU from the other. Some of the language being tossed between Moscow and Washington echoes the Cold War and a leaked tape reveals discord between the European Union and the US.

Firstly European officials and leaders are furious that America's new top diplomat for Europe, Victoria Nuland, was captured on tape using the f-word about the EU. In Brussels officials were coy. "If we defend ourselves," said one, "we will do it somewhere other than here." But German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the use of the word was "absolutely unacceptable". She also gave her backing to the EU's foreign policy chief, Cathy Ashton, saying she was doing an "outstanding job". The US State Department has apologised for the use of the swear word.

But the conversation between Ms Nuland and Geoff Pyatt, the US ambassador to Kiev, reveals deeper tensions between America and Europe.

The US envisages a role for the UN in trying to put together a deal that would end the crisis. Washington seems to prefer a deal brokered by the UN than Brussels. If true, that would bruise the feelings of EU officials. They believe this is their crisis to solve.

Most of the protestors want a closer relationship with the EU, so a succession of EU officials have made their way to Kiev. It has incensed the Russians who believe the EU's actions amount to "outright interference" in Ukraine's affairs.

Then there is the issue of how these remarks by Ms Nuland were made public. They were intercepted and uploaded on to YouTube with Russian captions. The State Department clearly believes the Russians were bugging their diplomats' phones. Ms Nuland herself said the recording was "pretty impressive tradecraft". Certainly the purpose of releasing it seems to have been to drive a wedge between Washington and Brussels.

But behind the accusations of bugging and dirty tricks there is an old-fashioned struggle going on for the heart of Ukraine.

A Kremlin aide has warned that Moscow might act to block what it calls US "interference" in Kiev. A key Russian figure in this drama, Sergei Glazyev, not only urged the government in Ukraine to crack down on what it called "putschists" but it accused Washington of arming and training the protesters. Ms Nuland described the claim that militants were being trained in the grounds of the US embassy in Ukraine as "pure fantasy".

She went on to describe the relationship with Russia as "very comprehensive and complex". Only a reformed Ukraine, she said, could receive financial support from the West. Nobody would give support to an unreformed Ukraine.

Today's comments and accusations are a reminder that this crisis is far from over and that it has the potential to cause division and tension even between allies.