Amid US-Russia tussle over Ukraine, a leaked tape of Victoria Nuland

While the authenticity of a YouTube recording of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland on a call to the US ambassador isn't confirmed, it sure sounds convincing.

By , Staff writer

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    US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland lights a candle in St. Michael Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine, Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014. Nuland arrived in the Ukrainian capital to try to help find a resolution to the protests and political crisis that have gripped the country for more than two months.
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A tape uploaded to YouTube on Feb. 4 appears to be a confidential conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.

The State Department hasn't yet commented on the video – and it's possible that the conversation was faked. However, the White House is blaming the Russians for the leak, which probably tells you that it's the real deal. If not, it's an amazing piece of mimicry of how senior US diplomats speak in private. 

(Update: State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki called the leak "a new low in Russian tradecraft" on Thursday afternoon and said "I didn't say it was inauthentic" when asked to confirm if the tape was legitimate. A "new low?" From a Russian perspective, assuming they did it, it was brilliant. And it didn't require assassinating a former spy in a foreign capital with a radioactive isotope.)

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The leak – if that is what it is – comes as tensions ratchet up between the US and Russia over Ukraine.

In an interview with the Kommersant-Ukraine newspaper out today Sergei Glazyev, the Kremlin's top advisor on Ukraine, said President Viktor Yanukovych should use force against the "putschists" and lashed out at the US. He charged that the West was "blackmailing" pro-Russian businessmen and that the US was spending $20 million a week to help "rebels" overthrow a Russian ally. He hinted that Russia might intervene militarily to help the Ukrainian president. 

So what we have is an ongoing propaganda war and in the midst of it the apparent leak of Nuland's call – a leak that is highly useful from Russia's perspective. The tape is not a complete conversation and could have been easily edited to make it appear the participants were saying things they weren't saying. It also raises a few interesting questions.

1. The "F-word"

Let's dispense with this one first. Ms. Nuland's use of the "F-word" is going to dominate headlines and keep the kids giggling on Twitter. On the tape, a voice that appears to be Nuland says "F--- the EU" after Pyatt refers to the UN sending an envoy to cement an agreement. Pyatt responds "exactly."

Not knowing the context of their past conversations and email discussions, it's hard to pin down their exact frustration. Remember, this is a piece of tape edited to serve the agenda of whoever released it, and it clearly doesn't start at the beginning (Nuland's first words on the clip are "Whaddya think?")

But her choice of word in a private conversation is irrelevant – and doesn't imply any overarching contempt for the EU that some have claimed. This may come as a shock but senior diplomats are often hard-charging and temperamental. She could have said "I don't care what the EU is doing - we're moving forward with our plans," and it would have meant the same thing.

2. How did this happen?

Well, Pyatt or Nuland or both got hacked. How and by whom? Hard to say. The obvious suspects in terms of motivation and ability would be the Russian or Ukrainian governments. What we don't know is whether the two were talking on a secure line, as they're generally supposed to, and that was compromised, or if they were using an unencrypted cell phone.

The tape appears to have first aired on YouTube on Feb. 4 and was uploaded by an anonymous account that's been on the site for about a month. The account's first upload, "The Truth About Kiltschko," is an attack on the opposition leader.

The Kyiv Post was among the first news outlets to notice the tape. It provides the Ukrainian backdrop to the American conversation. "The leaked phone call appears to have been made following President Viktor Yanukovych’s Jan. 25 offer to opposition leader Arseniy Yatseniuk to be prime minister and Klitschko to be deputy prime minister, offers both men refused. Mykola Azarov resigned as prime minister on Jan. 28."

It's quite likely that whoever hacked into the conversation was camping out on a phone number known to be used by either or both of the diplomats. Harvesting phone numbers of senior officials is a common task for spy agencies, including Russia's.

The fact that the leak was aired on YouTube implies that the US diplomats were probably using an unsecured line. If Russia or another intelligence agency had compromised the secure system at the embassy, for instance, they wouldn't want to announce that fact.

Whoever did it, the clear intent is to embarrass the US and Ukrainian opposition leaders it supports, as well as to try to drive a wedge between the US and EU. The chances that this was not edited for this political purpose are very low.

3. What of the substance?

Most interesting to me is the way Nuland speaks about the situation, particularly about Klitschko, a former champion boxer who's emerged as a key opposition leader who supports Ukrainian integration with the EU and is against the current government's alliance with Russia. "I don't think Klitsch should go into the government," she says. "I don't think it's a good idea."

Her strong statement of preference for how Ukraine's government should be formed – and apparent confidence that the US has major influence over that – is a reminder of the disconnect between US government assurances that it doesn't meddle in nations' internal politics and its actual behavior (White House spokesman Jay Carney repeats this canard in his comment on the tape.) This was not a conversation analyzing unfolding events and how to respond to what comes next. This was about molding a situation according to US interests. 

Transcript of the tape posted on YouTube, followed by the clip itself. 

Nuland: Whaddya think?

Pyatt: I think we're in play the Klitschko piece is obviously the complicated electron here. Especially the announcement of him as deputy prime minister and you've seen my notes on the trouble in the marriage right now so we're trying to get a read really fast where he is on this stuff. But I think your argument to him which you'll need to make, I think that's the next phone call you want to set up is exactly the one you made to (nickname for Yatseniuk). And I'm glad you sort of put him on the spot on where he fits in this scenario. And I'm very glad that he said what he said in response.

Nuland: Good. I don't think Klitsch should go into the government. I don't think it's a good idea.

Pyatt: Yeah. I guess... in terms of him not going into the government let him stay out and do his political homework and stuff i"m just thinking in terms of sort of the process moving ahead we want to keep the moderate democrats together. The problem is going to be Tiahnybok and his guys and I'm sure that's part of what Yanukovych is calculating on all this.

Nuland: (Breaks in) I think Yats is the guy that who's got the economic experience the governing experience he's the... what he needs is Klitsch and Tiahnybok (Oleh, leader of a nationalist party who has been pushing confrontation with the Ukrainian government) on the outside he needs to be talking to them four times a week you know. I just think Klitch going in he's going to be at that level working for Yatsinyuk it's just not going to work.

Pyatt: Yeah, no, I think that's right. Ok. Good. Do you want us to set up a call with him as the next step?

Nuland: My understanding from that call that you tell me was that the big three were going into their own meeting and that Yats was going to offer in that context a... three plus one conversation or three plus two with you. Is that not how you understood it?

Pyatt: No. I mean I think that's what he proposed but I think just knowing the dynamic that's been with them where Klitschko has been the top dog, he's going to take a while to shop up for whatever meetings they've got and he's probably talking to his guys at this point so I think you reaching out directly to him helps with the personality management among the three and it gives you also a chance to move fast on all this stuff and put us behind it before they all sit down and he explains why he doesn't like it.

Nuland: Ok, good. I'm happy. why don't you reach out to him and see if he wants to talk before or after.

Pyatt: Ok, will do. Thanks.

Nuland: Ok... one more wrinkle for you Jeff. I can't remember if I told you this or if I only told Washington this that when I talked to Jeff Feltman this morning he had a new name for the UN guy Robert Serry did I write you that this morning?

Pyatt: Yeah I saw that.

Nuland: Ok. He's now gotten both Serry and Ban ki-Moon to agree that Serry could come in Monday or Tuesday. That would be great I think to help glue this thing and to have the UN help glue it and, you know, F--- the EU.

Pyatt: No, exactly. And I think we've got to do something to make it stick together because you can be pretty sure that if it does start to gain altitude that the Russians will working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it. And again the fact that this is out there right now, I'm still trying to figure out in my mind why Yanukovych (garbled) that. In the meantime there's a Party of Regions faction meeting going on right now and I'm sure there's a lively argument going on in that group at this point. But anyway we could land jelly side up on this one if we move fast. So let me work on Klitschko and if you can just keep... we want to try to get somebody with an international personality to come out here and help to midwife this thing. The other issue is some kind of outreach to Yanukovych but we probably regroup on that tomorrow as we see how things start to fall into place.

Nuland: So on that piece Jeff when I wrote the note Sullivan's come back to me VFR saying you need Biden and I said probably tomorrow for an atta boy and to get the deets (details) to stick. So Biden's willing.

Pyatt: Ok. Great. Thanks.

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