German chancellor Angela Merkel
German chancellor Angela Merkel

German chancellor Angela Merkel condemned as “totally unacceptable” a US official’s expletive-laced dismissal of EU efforts to mediate in the Ukraine crisis, as controversy simmered over a tapped diplomatic phone call.

The US diplomat at the centre of the affair, Victoria Nuland, an assistant secretary of state, on Friday shrugged off the recording of her call to the US ambassador in Kiev as “impressive tradecraft” – a term usually used to refer to espionage. “The audio was very clear,” she quipped at a press conference in Kiev.

Washington said on Thursday it suspected Moscow was behind the release of the recording, posted on YouTube. In it, Ms Nuland, reflecting apparent frustration at EU indecisiveness over Ukraine, exclaims: “F**k the EU.”

The leak seemed aimed at sowing discord between the US and EU over the handling of Ukraine’s two-month-old political crisis. But it also highlighted the extent to which US and Russian sparring for influence in the former Soviet republic is heightening east-west tensions.

Though the leak was posted on Tuesday, it came to broad public attention on Thursday – the same day an aide to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, hit out in a newspaper interview at “crude interference” by the US in Kiev.

Sergei Glaziev, the Kremlin’s frontman on Ukraine, alleged that Washington was “spending $20m a week” on funding and arming anti-government protesters camped in Ukraine’s capital for more than two months. Mr Glaziev added that Washington’s behaviour violated a 1994 agreement between the two governments over Ukraine – giving Russia a legal right to unspecified intervention in the crisis.

Ms Nuland dismissed Mr Glaziev’s comments as “pure fantasy”, adding: “He could be a science fiction writer.”

The audio also shone a spotlight on Ms Nuland’s own role, during her fourth visit to Kiev in three months. She was pictured in December handing out bread to protesters and police on Kiev’s central Independence Square. As a former ambassador to Nato, Ms Nuland is one of the most experienced US diplomats on European issues. She is also known to favour sometimes colourful turns of phrase.

According to one state department official, she spent several months in her twenties on a Russian boat where “she learnt how to perfect perhaps certain words in a couple of languages”.

Working previously as a state department spokeswoman, Ms Nuland sometimes sparred verbally with Moscow.

John Kerry, US secretary of state, has said that during his first meeting with Sergei Lavrov, his Russian counterpart looked at his staff and said: “John, I see you have finally fired Toria Nuland.”

Mr Kerry said he responded: “No, I promoted her.”

The leaked phone call did appear to have caused strains between the US and some EU capitals.

Christiane Wirtz, a German government spokesperson, said Ms Merkel found Ms Nuland’s EU remarks totally unacceptable and wanted to “emphasise that Mrs Ashton is doing an outstanding job” – referring to Lady Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief.

The EU has declined to follow the US in threatening to impose sanctions against Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich and other senior officials if Kiev uses force to crush the protests.

Ms Nuland apologised for her EU comment. But the incident came in the same week as new revelations emerged of American intelligence surveillance on German leaders.

Material from the whistleblower Edward Snowden claimed the US National Security Agency had tapped the phone of Gerhard Schröder while he was chancellor, at the time before the Iraq war when Germany sided with France in opposing the US-led military invasion.

The news reignited anger felt in Berlin last year when it emerged the US had tapped Ms Merkel’s phone for years.

The Nuland leak did not immediately appear to have damaged US relations with Ukraine’s opposition, even though the two diplomats can be heard discussing which opposition leaders should be members of Ukraine’s new government.

The two agree that Arseny Yatseniuk, a former foreign minister, should be part of a new administration but that Vitali Klitschko, the heavyweight boxer, needs to “do his political homework” first. Ms Nuland calls the men “Yats” and “Klitsch”.

A spokesperson for Mr Klitschko said he had no comment on a recording not confirmed as genuine.

Additional reporting by Geoff Dyer in Washington

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