MOSCOW - It’s a nightmare scenario for Russia: Protesters oust a neighboring ally, send him fleeing and set up a decidedly pro-Western government.
So as events in Ukraine move at warp speed, many Western observers ask when the Russian bear will snap out of its post-Sochi daze and strike back. After all, Russia and the Ukraine were part of the same country during Soviet times, and Moscow has vital interests there, in addition to a shared cultural, social and political heritage.
Rumors are already flying that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin may be moving troops and tanks close to the Ukrainian border, in preparation for an attack. There is no evidence that this is the case, and Ukraine has denied the reports. That hasn’t stopped American and British officials from reacting.
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A Russian invasion of Ukraine would be a “grave mistake,” President Barack Obama’s National Security Adviser Susan Rice said on NBC’s Meet the Press on Sunday.
Russia’s considerable interests in Ukraine fuel fears of an intervention.
Deposed President Viktor Yanukovych backed out of a trade pact with Europe last year and instead turned to Russia, prompting the furious response from thousands of Ukrainians who eventually toppled his government.
"Armed people are no partners for dialogue"
In November, Putin admitted that his country’s agriculture, car and aviation industries would suffer if European goods were allowed to transit through Ukraine tariff-free, adding there could be a jump in Russian unemployment as a result.
Then there are considerable military interests – Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula is the home of Russia's Black Sea Fleet.
So it is no surprise that Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev has already made clear the Kremlin’s deep displeasure at Yanukovych’s toppling.
“We do not understand what is going on there. There is a real threat to our interests and to the lives of our citizens,” Medvedev told Russian news agencies, explaining why Moscow had recalled its Kiev ambassador on Sunday.
“There is no one to talk to there. There are big doubts about the legitimacy of a whole series of organs of power that are now functioning there,'' he said. “Armed people are no partners for dialogue.”
Earlier, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had claimed the opposition failed to abide by what appeared to be a breakthrough agreement reached on Friday between the Ukrainian government and the opposition.
The opposition “in effect, seized power in Kiev,” Lavrov said.
"Putin won’t send in troops or turn off the gas taps. There is no goal to destroy Ukraine, at least not now."
But despite Russia’s economic and military interests in Ukraine, and a history of interventions in countries it feels are part of its sphere of influence, few analysts in Russia believe Putin will move on Ukraine – for now.
“Putin won’t send in troops or turn off the gas taps. There is no goal to destroy Ukraine, at least not now,” said Russian analyst Fyodor Lukyanov, an expert in Russian-Ukrainian relations. He was referring to past closures of Russian natural gas through Ukrainian pipelines when Putin has needed to pressure Kiev.
“He knows that Kiev is bankrupt, and figures there’s room to bargain," even with a pro-Western Ukraine.
That seemed to be echoed in a phone conversation Sunday between Putin, still in Sochi, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
The chat “underscored their joint interest in a stable Ukraine, both in economic and political terms,” according to a Merkel spokesperson.
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So the Kremlin has talked tough but mostly watched as their man in Kiev morphed from the country’s president into a fugitive from justice, charged with “mass killings” of protesters.
All bets are off, Lukyanov said, if the new government there becomes too nationalistic or anti-Russian.
“Moscow could start to encourage separatism" by carving out, for instance, a small, breakaway republic in Eastern Ukraine which protects its interests, he said.
Oleksander Turchinov, Ukraine’s acting president – the man parliament picked to replace Yanukovych until elections are held in late May – seemed clearly aware of that danger. In an address to the nation, Sunday night, he reached out to Russia.
He said the new government wanted to put relations “on a new equal footing, that recognizes and takes into account Ukraine’s European choice.”
But if Ukraine does split apart, don’t hold your breath for a comeback by the ousted president.
“Yanukovych is finished,” said Lukyanov. “He’s lost the plot. If Putin plays the separatist card, he’ll need a fresh and charismatic leader. Not this s**t.’’
Whatever happens, a stable Ukraine will not be an option, at least not with its current crop of leaders – pro-Russian or opposition, he said.
“The whole ruling class is incompetent,” he said.