Deposed President Viktor Yanukovych broke his cover Friday, pledging to “keep fighting” Ukraine's new rulers– but analysts dismissed his comeback prospects as “highly unlikely.”
“It does not really matter what Yanukovych says now, he is finished,” said John Lough, Associate Fellow at the Russia and Eurasia Program at Chatham House. “He can’t return to the country because he is wanted man."
The exiled leader spoke to reporters in Russia – his first public appearance since fleeing Kiev a week ago in the aftermath of deadly clashes that plunged the region into a diplomatic crisis.
“Nobody ousted me,” he insisted to reporters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don, saying that Kiev’s interim rulers "represent the absolute minority of the population of Ukraine."
But the weakness of his case was underlined when he admitted he had not even had a face-to-face meeting with his only likely backer, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Russian government, which has mostly let its military activity in Crimea do the talking, officially backs Yanukovych’s position– but experts said the chances of Putin backing the ex-leader’s claims with military support were very slim.
“Absolutely NO role for Yanukovych either in Crimea or Ukraine,” Carnegie Moscow Center’s Director, Dmitri Trenin, wrote on Twitter, adding that Friday’s press conference was “an exercise in cowardice and duplicity.”
Yanukovych is “a pawn in Russia’s game,” said Lough. "Russia’s basic position that is that Yanukovych has been unconstitutionally removed by neo-fascist forces and remains the legitimate leader of Ukraine.
"Russia has an interest in slowing down the emergence of a new order in Ukraine and the uncertainty over Yanukovych serves that purpose."
Another nail in his coffin could come from the International Monetary Fund, whose practice is to support transitional governments as long as there is a general international consensus.
“Realistically, Yanukovych’s comeback appears highly unlikely,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, analyst at IHS Global Insight. Although she added that a period of economic austerity tied to an IMF bailout “could make Yanukovych - or a re-orientation to Russia - more appealing for many Ukrainian voters in the coming months.”
This leaves Yanukovych's personal and political future very uncertain.
Yanukovych is staying at private premises in Rostov-on-Don, instead of a government residence for top officials, according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
A Russian lawyer told the Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper that if Yanukovych were formally accused of murder, Russia should extradite him, the Washington Post reported.
“Based on the norms of international law and signed mutual treaties,” Alexander Treshev said, “Russia would have to do it.”
Despite refocusing Ukraine away from Europe and towards Russia, Yanukovych has lukewarm backing from the Kremlin.
"There is no love for him in Moscow, either," said Lough. “From Russia’s point of view he has been a weak and unreliable leader. Putin had no time for him at all."
Lough added: "He has blood on his hands. He was forcibly ejected from the country and there is a broad consensus in Ukraine that he was a very poor president. He has been disowned by his own party."