Tape implies US leaning toward backing Poroschenko for Ukraine PM

Petro Poroshenko file photo, with additional men in background, adapted from image at state.gov

(Business New Europe – bne.eu – Graham Stack in Kyiv – February 7, 2014) According to the leaked recording of a phone-tapped conversation between senior US diplomats, Washington is pushing for Ukraine’s opposition leaders to take up the offer from President Viktor Yanukovych to head a government of national unity, while viewing Klitschko as a future presidential front runner. But with frontrunner Arseny Yatseniuk initially declining the offer, US preference for the vacant post of prime minister may be swivelling towards former economy minister Petro Poroschenko, who met with US diplomats February 6.

A wiretapped telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Victoria Nuland and US Ambassador Geoffrey Pyatt, likely dating to immediately after Yanukovych offered Yatseniuk the post of prime minister on January 25, shows both US diplomats pushing strongly for Yatsenyuk to accept the offer. “I think Yats is the guy who’s got the economic experience, the governing experience,” Nuland said. Yatseniuk however turned down the offer.

Despite Yatseniuk’s refusal to take the job, Ukraine’s government resigned January 26, leaving only a caretaker government in charge.

According to the phone call, the US diplomats were against either Klitschko or Tiahnibok entering government. In the case of Klitschko – fondly named “Klitsch” during the conversation – this seems to be because US diplomats are afraid of him losing his status as a clean man unsullied by politics, while also afraid of his political inexperience being shown up. “Just let him sort of stay out and do his political homework and stuff,” Pyatt advises.

Yanukovych offered Klitschko the post of deputy prime minister in charge of humanitarian issues, but this would have additionally diminished his status by being subordinate to Yatsenyiuk, according to the US officials. In the event Klitschko turned down the offer.

The conversation strongly suggests US diplomats see Klitschko , whom they call the “top dog”, as a future president. But in the case of Tiahnibok, US officials have clear doubts over his nationalist agenda and potential for controversy, viewing him as a “problem” that is “part of what Yanukovych is calculating on all of this.”

Overall, US state officials, talking of “troubles in the marriage,” seem highly aware of the potential among the opposition leaders to fall out amongst each other, as happened to Ukraine’s last attempt at democratic reform following the 2004 Orange Revolution.

At the same time, the US diplomats indicate surprise at Yanukovych’s readiness to reach out to the opposition in this fashion – and are thus in favour of the opposition seizing the opportunity.

The fourth man

Yatseniuk in the event spurned the offer of the post of prime minister, despite the apparent urging of the US officials to take the job. Pundits speculate that Yatseniuk fears he will be made scapegoat for the disastrous situation in the economy, and also that he might cause a rift with party leader and talisman, jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who has opposed any power-sharing with Yanukovych.

The US reaction to Yatseniuk’s reluctance to become prime minister may have been made apparent on February 6, when Nuland again met with Ukrainian opposition leaders in Kyiv. But whereas the phone call of around January 25 referred to “the big three” opposition leaders – Klitschko, Yatseniuk and Tiahnibok – a photo call of Nuland with opposition leaders was significantly “photobombed” by a fourth opposition leader, Petro Poroschenko, with the US officials suddenly speaking of the “four main opposition groups.”

This may indicate that Poroschenko is now the US – and shared opposition – candidate for the post of prime minister in a transition “national unity” government. Poroschenko is ideally suited for the role: he was economy ministry in a Yanukovych government in 2012, and foreign minister and security council head under previous president Victor Yushchenko.

Oligarch Poroschenko, like Yatseniuk, is fluent in English and staunchly pro-western, despite his car and confectionary businesses having strong links to Russia. An experienced operator, his political career seemed to be over due to his close association with discredited former president Yushchenko, who in 2010 when attempting re-election scored only 5%.

But Poroschenko has skilfully put himself at the forefront of the Euromaidan demonstrations, with his Fifth Channel TV station switching to round-the-clock coverage of the demonstrations., which were sparked by President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal at the end of November to sign off on a longstanding deal to bring Ukraine closer to the EU. He has even reached a presidential rating of around 9%, neck and neck with Yatseniuk.

But unlike Yatseniuk, Poroschenko has no political force behind him despite being an MP, and thus may stand to gain by taking the job as prime minister. He is also likely to be amenable to Yanukovych, partly thanks to his previous record of service under the incumbent president, but also due to his strong lobbying for the EU to sign an Association Agreement with Ukraine, as well as support for the continued jailing of Yulia Tymoshenko, whom Yushchenko and Poroschenko regard as justly imprisoned.

Divide and rule

Responsibility for the leaking of the phone-tapped conversation between the two US officials may well lie with Russia, according to the US. The giveaway: Russian officials were the first to Tweet the link to the YouTube file. The Kremlin’s interest in the conversation lies in Nuland telling Pyatt to “fuck the EU” for going soft on Ukraine. Ironically, the very recording and the leaking of the call confirms US apprehension, expressed by Pyatt in the call, that Russia would seek to “torpedo the plans” for any opposition-led government as soon as it started to gain height.

According to a Senate staffer, “the Senate view is that not only are the Europeans deluded in their desire for harmony, but they actively want to avoid seeing a European leader deposed, because it sets a bad example.”

“Nuland’s words could come from the heart of most Ukrainian EU-experts and several Western Ukraine experts,” says Andreas Umland, a prominent German expert on Ukraine.

In addition, the tapping of the calls supports US claims that all countries extensively use advanced surveillance technologies to spy on each other, and that the revelations by the whistleblowing former contractor at the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, about the US espionage and surveillance activities including of close allies simply reflects what is standard international practice.