Watch CBS News

Top U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland, Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt caught out in private chat leaked online

WASHINGTON -- Two senior American diplomats, thinking their conversation about the 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 and U.S. They also came as the Russia-hosted Winter Olympics opened under tight security to prevent possible terrorist attacks and highlighted distrust between Washington and Moscow that has thrived despite the Obama administration's attempt to "reset" relations with the Kremlin.

The White House and State Department stopped just short of directly accusing Russia of surreptitiously recording the call between the top U.S. 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."

An aide to Russia's deputy prime minister, who was among the first to people to post a video online containing a bugged phone call between two U.S. diplomats, says neither he nor the Russian government played a role in leaking the tape.

Dmitry Loskutov told The Associated Press by phone on Friday that he was surfing a social networking website on when he came across the video. He said his decision to repost the video had no connection to his work for the Russian government. 

Ukraine protesters brutalized, military urges action to restore stability 02:22
 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.

As CBS News correspondent Margaret Brennan reported on "CBS This Morning," Russia, the U.S. and the EU have all been jockeying for influence in the Ukrainian crisis.

"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 colorfully suggests that the EU's position should be ignored. "F--- the EU," the female voice said.

In the tweet, posted by Loskutov some seven hours before existence of the video became widely known on Thursday, he 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."

"I’m obviously not going to comment on private diplomatic conversations other than to say it was pretty impressive tradecraft, the audio was extremely clear," said Nuland at a news conference Friday in Kiev.

"We have been in contact with Russia in regard to situation in Ukraine," Nuland said. "Our message has been that we all -- Ukrainians, Russians, Americans, all of Ukrainian neighbors -- have an interest in a stable democratic Ukraine."

She said she and her colleagues had "talked quite extensively in all of our meetings about the support the international community, including the U.S., is prepared to give a Ukraine that is moving towards deescaltion of the tensions," but she insisted "nobody is going to give economic support from the U.S. or the IMF or from Europe to an unreformed Ukraine." 

 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 Kiev, which has become the center 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.

The tweet opened up the conversation to public scrutiny hours after another Russian official, a senior aide to President Vladimir Putin, claimed the U.S. was “arming” and training Ukrainian “rebels” with funding amounting to “$20 million a week.”

Sergei Glazyev told a newspaper that the U.S. “interference” breached the 1994 treaty under which Washington and Moscow jointly guaranteed Ukraine's security and sovereignty after Kiev gave up its Soviet-era nuclear arsenal.

“There is information that within the grounds of the American embassy, there is training for fighters, that they're arming them,” Glazyev said.

The U.S. Embassy in Kiev told CBS News on Thursday that Glazyev's "accusations are entirely false and should be given no credence." 

Nuland reiterated the denial on Friday, calling Glazyev's claim that there was training at the embassy "pure fantasy," according to Reuters.

"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 at the State Department on Thursday. "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."

Brennan noted on "CBS This Morning" that the EU has not commented on the leak -- or on a similar recording of its top official, heard criticizing the U.S.

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.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.