World News : After Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine last July, U.S. diplomats got a private recap of the message he delivered behind closed doors to the country’s leaders. Ukraine, Putin warned, would not be allowed to stray from Moscow’s orbit.
Putin’s blunt talk was an unexpected sign of how hard Moscow would fight Western influence on Ukraine, U.S. officials say, prompting Washington and European capitals to step up their engagement with Ukrainian government and opposition forces.
Seven months later, the United States and Russia are locked in a Cold War-style test of wills over the strategically located country of 45 million that has been racked by anti-government protests and sporadic violence.
U.S.-Russia tensions and mutual accusations of meddling are making it more difficult to find a solution in Ukraine, where the U.S. fears violence may escalate, and is one of the clearest signs yet that U.S. President Barack Obama has made scant progress improving relations with Washington’s former adversary.
In Ukraine, former U.S. officials and analysts say, Russia holds most of the cards, including close proximity, energy supplies that Kiev depends on and a promised $15 billion bailout it has used to woo Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich away from an EU trade deal.
Obama, reluctant to act assertively in what Russia has long considered its sphere of influence, has limited direct leverage and few good options.
But Washington has decided to use the Ukraine crisis to take a stand, at least diplomatically, against what the White House regards as a “worrying and troubling” pattern of Russian behavior toward its neighbors, a senior U.S. official said.
“Ukraine is going to be a test” of improved U.S.-Russian relations, said the official, who was not authorized to talk publicly. The administration has a realistic understanding of what is possible with Russia, after early enthusiasm about the possibility of working together. “We understand the shape and the dimensions of the Russia we’re dealing with, and it makes it tougher to find that cooperation.”
The more activist American policy was unintentionally on display last week in the leaked secret recording of a phone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Geoffrey Pyatt.
The two are heard speaking intensely about the formation of an interim, reform-minded government and treating Moscow like an adversary. “You can be pretty sure that if (a deal for a new government) does start to gain altitude the Russians will be working behind the scenes to try to torpedo it,” Pyatt says.
U.S. officials have not directly blamed the leak on Russia, which has denied its involvement. But the audio clip was first posted on Twitter by Dmitry Loskutov, an aide to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, a diplomatic source said.
The leak also revealed U.S.-European tensions over how assertive to be in the crisis, with Nuland dismissing what American officials regard as the EU’s cautious approach with profanity.
U.S. officials say the damage to trans-Atlantic relations was fleeting, and that polls taken in the days since show a rise in Ukrainians’ approval of the United States.