The top US diplomat in Europe has privately apologised for an obscene remark about the European Union, a comment the German chancellor Angela Merkel described as "totally unacceptable".
US assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland offered the apology to EU colleagues for the content of a hacked and leaked private telephone call she had the US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt, in which she dismissed European efforts to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, saying: "F**k the EU."
Ms Nuland would not comment on the content of the call in Kiev, describing the leak as “pretty impressive tradecraft”, the term used to describe espionage skills. “[The] audio quality is very good.”
The recording was posted online and the US has blamed Russia for bugging the call and leaking the recording, noting that a senior Russian official first drew attention to it.
The EU and US are involved in negotiations to resolve the crisis in Ukraine sparked in November when Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, under pressure from Russia, refused to sign a trade agreement with the EU. Demonstrations escalated to violence when the government banned the pro-EU protests.
The crisis has rekindled old East-West tensions as Russian has accused the EU and the US of meddling in Ukraine's affairs. A German government spokeswoman for Dr Merkel defended the work carried out by EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton to find a solution and criticised the private comments of the Americans.
"The chancellor finds these remarks totally unacceptable and wants to emphasis that Mrs Ashton is doing an outstanding job," said spokeswoman Christiane Wirtz.
The leak, a throwback to the spy games of the cold war era, comes at a time when Mrs Merkel is still angry that her mobile phone was bugged in the far-reaching US surveillance operations.
During the leaked call, the US diplomats are heard scheming about the make-up of a government they are proposing to end anti-government protests and violence in Ukraine.
A woman whose voice resembles Ms Nuland is heard saying that Ukrainian opposition leader, former heavyweight boxing world champion Vitaly Klitschko, should not form part of any new technical government but that another opposition leader, Arseniy Yatseniuk, should.
“I don’t think it’s a good idea,” she said of Klitschko’s potential involvement in a new government to resolve the crisis. “I think Yats [Yatseniuk] is the guy who’s got the economic experience.”
US officials have not denied the authenticity of the recording but have instead focused on the suspected source of the bugged call and leaked recording which appeared on YouTube on Thursday.
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki suggested that Moscow was to blame, pointing out that Russian government aide Dmitry Loskutov was the first to draw attention to the online leak. "We think this is a new low in Russian tradecraft," she said. "This is something they've been actively promoting, posting on, tweeting about."
Mr Loskutov has denied either he nor the Russian government leaked the recording.