Moscow accuses US of fomenting Ukraine coup
An east-west struggle over Ukraine turned nastier as Moscow accused the United States of fomenting a coup and Washington pointed a finger at Russia for leaking a recording of US diplomats discussing how to shape a new government in Kiev.
As Russian President Vladimir Putin prepared to open the Winter Olympics at Sochi, the first Games in Russia since the Soviet Union hosted the 1980 summer edition, the showdown over Ukraine produced chilly Cold War rhetoric, with a Kremlin aide warning Moscow might act to block US "interference" in Kiev.
US-Russian relations have long been far from warm and there seems little chance yet of conflict going much beyond verbal sparring, but the ferocity of the exchanges was a mark of the importance of Ukraine, a sprawling former Soviet state of 46 million people that Putin wants to keep in Moscow's economic orbit.
He is likely to meet the Ukrainian president in Sochi, possibly to discuss Viktor Yanukovich's plans for a new prime minister - plans on which billions in Russian aid depend. He may also raise concerns, voiced by the Kremlin's point man on Ukraine, that Yanukovich needs to crack down on protesters who have been on the streets for over two months, demanding he quit.
The United States, for its part, described as "a new low in Russian tradecraft" the posting on YouTube of a recording of a senior State Department official discussing plans for a new Ukrainian government with the US ambassador in Kiev.
The White House spokesman said: "Since the video was first noted and Tweeted out by the Russian government, I think it says something about Russia's role."
US officials did not challenge the authenticity of what seemed to be a phone call bugged about 12 days ago and which also contained an obscene comment by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland about the European Union's efforts to work with Washington in support of the Ukrainian opposition.
Apparently dating from just before Jan. 27, when opposition leader Arseny Yatsenyuk turned down Yanukovich's offer to be prime minister, the recording of Nuland and ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt included them agreeing that another opposition figure, former boxing champion Vitaly Klitschko, should not be in the cabinet.
"I don't think Klitsch (Klitschko) should go into the government," Nuland said in the recording, which carried subtitles in Russian. "I don't think it's a good idea."
She also discussed the prospect of a U.N. envoy endorsing a new government: "That would be great ... to have the U.N. help glue it and you know ... fuck the EU."
Pyatt responded: "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, the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it."
The furore over the leaks raised questions over security standards among diplomatic missions in Kiev and over possible Russian or Ukrainian bugging of diplomatic lines.
Recent revelations of widespread US monitoring of foreign communications may temper sympathy for Washington's officials.