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Putin waits for next move

Moscow, Feb. 24: The sudden collapse of the Kremlin-backed government in Ukraine has for now delivered a profound setback to President Vladimir V. Putin’s strategy to deepen political and economic ties with the country and thus keep it from embracing Europe.

Even as Russia celebrates the closing of Olympic Games that defied some dire expectations, Putin now faces the task of reasserting Russia’s influence in a country that it considers a fraternal ally, one with deep cultural, social and political connections that bind it to Moscow’s orbit regardless of its new government.

Russia still has enormous leverage and close allies in Ukraine, particularly in the east and on the Crimea Peninsula, home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet and a sizeable ethnic Russian population that views the leaders of the political uprising that toppled President Viktor Yanukovich with disdain.

That has raised fears that Russia would use the disenchanted populations there as a pretext to intervene to reverse Ukraine’s new trajectory — even militarily, as the Kremlin did in two ethnic enclaves in 2008 in another former Soviet republic, Georgia.

The fears have been so palpable — and the subject of endless speculation in Ukraine and here in Russia — that President Obama’s national security adviser, Susan E. Rice, warned in a television interview yesterday that it “would be a grave mistake” for Russia to use force. “It’s in nobody’s interest to see violence return and the situation escalate,” Rice said on NBC’s Meet the Press.

At the same time, the US and Europe have accused Russia of trying to impose its will there.

Putin’s envoy refused to sign the agreement mediated on Friday by three European foreign ministers to end two days of carnage in the capital, Kiev, only to have the agreement overtaken by a political upheaval that threatens to undercut Russia’s influence over any new government.

The Kremlin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, complained yesterday that while Yanukovych had honoured the terms of the agreement — which called for new elections and a return of constitutional powers to the Parliament — his political opponents had not. Instead, the Parliament has effectively seized power and is now rushing through an emboldened series of votes that have provoked rage among Russian lawmakers.

“It’s a confusing situation,” Peskov said in a telephone interview from Sochi. “We have to figure out what we are facing there. Is it a coup or what?” Putin has not yet made any public statements about the latest events, as is often the case when he is confronted by unexpected challenges or crises. “Let’s wait and see,” Peskov said.

 
 
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