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U.S. diplomat plays down leaked call; Germany's Merkel angry

Anti-government protesters march on the street in Kiev February 6, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili
Anti-government protesters march on the street in Kiev February 6, 2014. REUTERS/David Mdzinarishvili

By Richard Balmforth and Natalia Zinets

KIEV (Reuters) - A top U.S. diplomat tried to play down the damage to Washington's diplomacy in Ukraine from a leaked telephone call on Friday, but German Chancellor Angela Merkel called an obscene remark about the EU "absolutely unacceptable."

U.S. officials blamed Moscow for the Internet leak of recordings of Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and the U.S. ambassador in Kiev discussing a possible future government for Ukraine, where Washington and Brussels back anti-Kremlin demonstrators.

On Friday Nuland tried to limit the diplomatic fall-out from her comment. "I am not going to comment on private diplomatic conversations. But it was pretty impressive tradecraft. The audio was extremely clear," she told reporters during a visit to Kiev.

She said she did not foresee damage to relations with opposition leaders, saying they "know exactly where we stand in respect of a non-violent solution to the problem."

Of relations with Russia, she said Washington and Moscow had "very deep, very broad and complex" discussions on a range of international issues including Iran and "frank and comradely discussions" on Ukraine.

Western officials described the leaks as a throwback to the cloak-and-dagger tactics of the Cold War, apparently aimed as much at sowing discord among Western allies as at discrediting the opposition in Ukraine, a country of 46 million people on the verge of bankruptcy, torn between East and West.

In the call, Nuland is heard using an expletive to tell the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, it would be better if a new Ukrainian government is backed by the United Nations than the EU. "Fuck the EU," she says.

U.S. officials did not deny the authenticity of the recording and said Nuland apologized to EU colleagues for the comment.

Angela Merkel, already furious with Washington for several months over reports that U.S. officials bugged her own phone, found Nuland's remarks "totally unacceptable", a spokeswoman for the German chancellor said.

Merkel also expressed support for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who heads the bloc's Ukraine policy.

In a separate leaked recording, an Ashton aide is overheard complaining about the United States for telling Ukrainian opposition members that Brussels was "soft" in its reluctance to impose measures such as sanctions to hurt the pro-Russian government.

Nuland met President Viktor Yanukovich in Kiev on Thursday before the Ukrainian leader flew off to meet President Vladimir Putin at the Olympics in Russia.

TAPPED CALLS

Some U.S. officials blamed Moscow for leaking the call, noting that the recording, posted anonymously, was first highlighted in a tweet from a Russian official.

In Washington, U.S. officials said Nuland and Pyatt apparently used unencrypted cellphones, which are easy to monitor. The officials said smart phones issued to State Department officials had data encryption but not voice encryption.

In Nuland's call, apparently recorded about 12 days ago when Ukrainian opposition leaders were considering an offer from Yanukovich to join his cabinet, she suggested that one of three leading figures might accept a post but two others should stay out. In the end, all three rejected the offer.

The diplomatic furor with the EU drew attention to a gulf between Washington and Brussels, who agree on the goal to draw Ukraine closer to the West but disagree over how to achieve it.

Some U.S. officials want to threaten Yanukovich's government with sanctions, including travel bans on individuals. Many Europeans worry that such tactics could be counterproductive, driving Ukraine's elite closer to Moscow.

Relations between Washington and Moscow, frosty for years, have been bitter recently, with disputes over Syria, human rights and other issues leaving little to show for what President Barack Obama's administration once billed as a diplomatic "reset".

In Ukraine, economic and political events have been coming to a head three months into a political crisis that began with Yanukovich's decision to walk away from a free trade pact with the EU under Russian pressure.

CAPITAL CONTROLS

Ukraine's central bank imposed new capital controls overnight in a bid to shore up the sliding hryvnia currency. Officials said the measures were only temporary. The include a six-day waiting period for hard currency purchases, a maximum of around $5,700 for private transfers abroad and a ban on buying hard currency to pay back foreign loans early or invest abroad.

"The result will be a flourishing black market" in dollars, said Tatiana Orlova, an emerging markets strategist at RBS in London.

Central bank governor Ihor Sorkin said: "When the situation improves, these temporary measures will be removed."

On the political front, Yanukovich must name a new prime minister after sacking a pro-Russian loyalist in a concession to demonstrators only to fail to persuade opposition leaders to take his place.

Russia, which bailed out Ukraine with an offer of $15 billion in cheap gas and loans after Yanukovich snubbed the EU trade pact, has cut off the funds until it learns who the new prime minister will be. Yanukovich may discuss it with Putin.

Modern Ukraine is divided between eastern provinces that were districts of Russia for centuries and where most people speak Russian, and western sections that were annexed by the Soviets from Poland and the former Austrian empire, where most people speak Ukrainian and many resent Russian domination.

Although many Ukrainians say they dream of integration with the West, the Soviet economic legacy gives Moscow extraordinary leverage. Ukraine's heavy industry depends on imports of energy, above all Russian natural gas.

Moscow portrays the anti-Yanukovich demonstrators as paid Western agents and seems to be pushing for Yanukovich to order a crackdown to clear the streets.

In some of the sharpest language yet, the Kremlin's point man on Ukraine, Sergei Glazyev, urged the Ukrainian leader to stop negotiating with "putschists". He accused Washington of arming, funding and training the opposition to take power.

Nuland called the remarks "pure fantasy".

"He could be a science fiction writer," she said.

(Additional reporting by Richard Balmforth, Jack Stubbs and Alastair Macdonald in Kiev and Stephen Brown in Berlin; Editing by Peter Graff and Janet McBride)

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