A leaked audio recording of a phone call allegedly catches the top U.S. diplomat to Europe working on a behind-the-scenes deal to end the Ukrainian political turmoil, and using profanity to express strong frustrations with inaction and indecision by the European Union in resolving the crisis.
In the conversation, voices closely resembling those of Assistant Secretary for European Affairs Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt discuss a plan to broker a deal between the Ukrainian government and the opposition.
At one point the woman, who sounds like Nuland, can be heard saying "f--- the EU."
The call cannot be independently verified, and it is unclear when and where it was recorded.
At a news conference Friday at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev, Ukraine, Nuland said, "I will not comment on private diplomatic conversations."
She wouldn't confirm or deny if it was her voice in the recording, but said it was "impressive tradecraft," a term typically used to describe espionage techniques.
"The audio was extremely clear," she said.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also declined to speak about the details of a private conversation but did not say the call was inauthentic.
The recording was uploaded on YouTube on Tuesday by an anonymous user named "Maidan Puppets" and had been viewed more than 11,000 times as of Thursday. The name of the user appears to be a reference to Maidan Square in Kiev, where protesters have fought the government, and to Russian accusations that the protesters are puppets of the West. The call also was posted on the website of the Kyiv Post, a leading Ukrainian newspaper.
The United States is pointing a finger at Russian involvement in the matter of the leaked call. Russia has accused the United States of meddling in Ukrainian affairs, and U.S. officials suggested that Moscow probably tapped Nuland and Pyatt's phone conversation and leaked it out of concern about a potential deal between the government and the opposition.
Although she said she didn't have independent detail about the origin of the YouTube video, Psaki said the fact the recording was first tweeted by an employee in Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin's office was an "indication" that Russia played a role.
"Certainly we think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft," Psaki said. "This is something they've been actively promoting, posting on."
The conversation appears to address Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych's Jan. 25 offer of a power-sharing deal with opposition leader Arseniy Yatseniuk as prime minister and Vitaly Klitschko as deputy prime minister in a new national unity government. Both men refused Yanukovych's offer.
The woman sounding like Nuland says, "I don't think it's necessary, I don't think it's a good idea" for Klitschko to have a role in the government, adding that she favors Yatseniuk to be the new Prime Minister.
"I think Yats (Yatseniuk) is the guy who's got the economic experience, the governing experience," Nuland says, according to the recording.
The man sounding like Pratt refers to Vitali Klitschko as the "top dog" among opposition leaders, but suggests Klitschko is too inexperienced to hold a top government post.
"Yeah ... I guess ... in terms of him not going into the government, just let him sort of stay out and do his political homework and stuff," he says. "I'm just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead, we want to keep the moderate democrats together."
Referring to a perceived lack of pressure by the European Union in putting pressure on Yanukovych, Nuland tells Pratt she has spoken to the United Nations, and that Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon agreed to send someone to broker the discussions.
"That would be great to help glue this thing and to have the U.N. help glue it," the woman who sounds like Nuland said. "And you know, f--- the EU."
"Exactly," Pyatt replies. "And I think we got to do something to make it stick together, because you can be sure that if it does start to gain altitude, the Russians will be working behind the scenes to torpedo it. Let me work on Klitschko, and I think we should get a Western personality to come out here (to Ukraine) and midwife this thing."
"I think we are in play," Pyatt adds.
The recording ends with Nuland saying she can get probably get Vice President Joe Biden to make a phone call, presumably to Yanukovych "for an atta-boy and to get the deeds to stick." Biden has talked to Yanukovych by telephone at least four times in the last month.
The State Department's Psaki said, "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, and it shouldn't be a surprise that at any point there have been discussions about recent events and offers and what is happening on the ground."
She added that Nuland had apologized to her EU counterparts.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said it was "completely unacceptable" that a top U.S. diplomat used such language while commenting on the EU's handling of the Ukraine crisis, a spokesman said Friday.