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
frosty Cold War rhetoric, with a Kremlin aide warning Moscow might
act to block U.S. "interference" in Kiev.
U.S.-Russian relations have long been cool, but the ferocity of the
exchanges was a mark of globally diverging interests — and of the
importance of Ukraine, an ex-Soviet state of 46 million people that
Putin wants to keep in Moscow's orbit despite mass street
demonstrations against Russian influence.
Ukraine's economy has suffered, with the central bank introducing
restrictions on foreign exchange purchases on Friday to try and
stabilize a hryvnia currency that has lost 10 percent against the
dollar since street protests against President Viktor Yanukovich
began in November.
Putin is likely to meet Yanukovich in Sochi, possibly to discuss
candidates for a new prime minister. Putin 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 online of a recording of a senior State
Department official discussing plans for a new Ukrainian government
with the U.S. ambassador in Kiev. Victoria Nuland also disparaged
the EU in a crudely pithy manner.
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." The State Department said Nuland had
apologized to her EU counterparts for her language.
One diplomatic source pointed to a tweet from an aide to Deputy
Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin linking to the recorded phone call.
The Russian aide later said on Twitter that he had simply spotted it
on the Internet.
The Kremlin's point man on Ukraine, Sergei Glazyev, in a typically
confrontational newspaper interview, urged the Ukrainian leader to
crack down, instead of negotiating with "putschists" whom he accused
Washington of arming, funding and training to take over the
Rogozin himself, who visited Kiev this week and has long been a
combative anti-Western voice in Moscow, tweeted on Friday the he was
meeting Russian and Ukrainian industrialists later in the day to
discuss cooperation in aerospace:
"While the Westerners are cooking up intrigues over there and
getting into scandals, Russia is helping Ukrainian regions restore
their lost relationships with our companies, and that means creating
thousands of jobs," Rogozin said, referring to disruption of
industrial ties after the Soviet Union broke up.
"Maybe then there will be fewer unemployed and bitter people around
to organize pogroms in their towns with money from outsiders," he
said, referring to Russian accusations that Western governments fund
opposition groups, including far-right nationalists with a history
Washington did not challenge the authenticity of what seems to be a
phone call between diplomats bugged about 12 days ago, discussing
how opposition leaders should best respond to an offer from
Yanukovich to include them in a new government.
Similarly, EU officials said they would not comment on a "leaked
alleged" call posted on the same anti-opposition website featuring a
senior aide to EU diplomacy chief Catherine Ashton complaining about
U.S. criticism that the EU was being "too soft" in its approach to
imposing sanctions on Yanukovich.
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The simultaneous release of the recordings, whatever their source
and authenticity, appeared designed to discredit the Western powers,
portray Ukraine's opposition as Western pawns and to drive a wedge
between Brussels and Washington.
Apparently dating from just before January 27, when opposition
leader Arseny Yatsenyuk rejected Yanukovich's offer to be prime
minister, the recording of Nuland and ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt
included them agreeing that another opposition figure, boxing
champion Vitaly Klitschko, should stay out of 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, suggesting it would be preferable to having a deal
appear to be brokered by Brussels: "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 furor 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 U.S. monitoring of foreign
communications may temper sympathy for Washington's officials.
Yanukovich, who triggered the mass protests in November when he
yielded to Russian pressure and backed out of a free trade pact with
the EU, may tell Putin of plans for a new government to replace a
pro-Russian prime minister he sacked last week.
After Yanukovich walked away from the EU pact, Russia promised $15
billion in aid. Moscow has frozen the aid until it finds out who
will be the new prime minister.
Since the opposition's Yatsenyuk turned down the job, some
opposition figures speculate that Yanukovich may now name one of his
own hardline allies in an effort to please Moscow.
Kiev needs funds, though is loath to admit it. The central bank
announced late on Thursday it was restricting purchases of foreign
exchange to try to stabilize its banks and a currency that has
fallen 10 percent in three months.
On Friday, central bank officials said the hryvnia rate was now
"appropriate". Governor Ihor Sorkin told a news conference: "There
have been strains on the currency market recently, but we are sure
this is only a short-term trend.
Yanukovich met Nuland just before flying out for Sochi. He assured
her, according a statement from his office, that he wanted talks not
violence: "Only by dialogue and compromise can we get out of this
crisis," he said.
(Additional reporting by Natalia Zinets and Jack Stubbs in Kiev and
Steve Holland in Washington; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; editing
by Peter Graff)
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