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Russia accuses US of inciting Ukraine coup

In retaliation, the US pointed a finger at Russia for leaking a recording of US diplomats’ discussion.

FILE:Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Picture: AFP.

KIEV - An east-west struggle over Ukraine turned nastier as Moscow accused the United States of fomenting a coup and Washington pointed a finger at Russia for leaking a recording of US diplomats discussing how to shape a new government in Kiev.

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 chilly Cold War rhetoric, with a Kremlin aide warning Moscow might act to block US "interference" in Kiev.

US-Russian relations have long been far from warm and there seems little chance yet of conflict going much beyond verbal sparring, but the ferocity of the exchanges was a mark of the importance of Ukraine, a sprawling former Soviet state of 46 million people that Putin wants to keep in Moscow's economic orbit.

He is likely to meet the Ukrainian president in Sochi, possibly to discuss Viktor Yanukovich's plans for a new prime minister - plans on which billions in Russian aid depend. He 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 on YouTube of a recording of a senior State Department official discussing plans for a new Ukrainian government with the US ambassador in Kiev.

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."

US officials did not challenge the authenticity of what seemed to be a phone call bugged about 12 days ago and which also contained an obscene comment by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland about the European Union's efforts to work with Washington in support of the Ukrainian opposition.

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 US criticism that the EU was being "too soft" in its approach to imposing sanctions on Yanukovich.

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.

YANUKOVICH DILEMMA

Moscow has frozen aid it granted after the EU debacle until it knows who Yanukovich names in place of the pro-Russian prime minister removed last week in a bid to appease opponents.

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 stabilise its banks and a currency that has fallen 10 percent in three months.

Putin may voice some of the impatience with Yanukovich that was expressed by 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 ex-Soviet state.

The United States and European Union have urged Yanukovich to form a consensus government involving the opposition and to embark on constitutional and economic reforms that would bring Western financial and other aid to the nation of 46 million.

KREMLIN WARNING

Kremlin aide Glazyev accused Nuland of "blackmail" by privately warning wealthy, mostly Russian-speaking oligarchs who back Yanukovich that they risked their foreign assets being seized if they did not hand power to the opposition.

Russia, he said, was concerned that the country should not split apart. But he suggested that a form of federalism be introduced to give regions substantial powers - to the extent eastern regions might be linked to a customs union with Russia while western Ukraine might have a trade pact with Europe.