The fiery heroine of Ukraine's Orange Revolution, Yulia Tymoshenko, is fighting for her political life in a Kiev courtroom against charges of corruption and abuse of office while she was the country's prime minister in 2009.
Ms. Tymoshenko's trial began in late June, but on Friday the judge, infuriated by her repeated displays of defiance, had her arrested and imprisoned for the Ukrainian equivalent of "contempt of court." On Monday the court rejected her lawyers' appeal to have her released from jail.
But President Viktor Yanukovych, who narrowly defeated Tymoshenko in presidential polls last year and may have seen the corruption trial as means of finally burying a perennial opponent, appears to have miscalculated badly.
Tymoshenko's supporters have rallied to her defense, both the US and the European Union have expressed deep concern over what they suspect to be a "politically motivated" trial. Even Russia is growling angrily about Mr. Yanukovych's decision to make the centerpiece of the case a controversial 2009 gas agreement that Tymoshenko signed with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
"Yanukovych's decision to put Tymoshenko on trial looks increasingly irrational," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow business daily Kommersant. "By putting a defeated opponent in the dock, he granted her a whole new political lease on life.
"And by indirectly implicating top Russian leaders in the case, especially Vladimir Putin, Yanukovych has aroused the anger of the Kremlin," he adds. "That gas deal was Putin's brainchild, and calling it into question puts his personal prestige and credibility on the line."
Boon for Tymoshenko
Tymoshenko, whose political popularity had been flagging since she was forced out of her job as prime minister last year, has been thrust back into the public eye and handed a role that she has honed to perfection in the past: that of a true daughter of Ukraine, persecuted for her patriotism by pro-Russian leaders.
With hundreds of supporters rallying outside the court house and camping in a nearby park, Tymoshenko has used her court appearances to accuse Yanukovych of selling out on Ukrainian independence and installing a pro-Russian dictatorship in the country. After her arrest Friday she posted a defiant statement on her official website insisting that she is a "political prisoner."
"I chose my path myself," she said. "The meaning of my life is to protect Ukraine and make Ukraine a beautiful European state. This is all a test, but I will never give up my fight for Ukraine’s European future."
Russia firmly against renegotiating gas deal
The 2009 gas deal with Putin ended a long dispute between Ukraine and Russia over gas supplies, which had caused several painful disruptions of Russian gas deliveries to Europe, and was widely hailed at the time. But the deal locked Ukraine into paying $450 per thousand cubic meters for Russian gas over a period of 10 years. While that rate is similar to what European countries would pay, it is far higher than the "friendly" rates that Ukraine previously enjoyed.
After being elected president last year, Yanukovych pledged to revise the terms of the agreement. He made several strategic concessions to Moscow, which included dropping Ukraine's bid to join NATO, and renewing the Russian Navy's lease on its main Black Sea base, Sevastopol in the Crimea, for a period of 25 years.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev gave Ukraine a 30 percent discount on Russian gas in return for the Sevastopol lease extension, but refused to renegotiate the basic terms under which Russia sells gas to Ukraine.
More recently, Russia has pressed Ukraine to join a Moscow-dominated economic zone and integrate several key industries with their Russian counterparts. Yanukovych, who hopes to bring Ukraine into a free trade zone with the EU, has lately been balking at Russian overtures.
"One of the reasons Yanukovych decided to put Tymoshenko on trial was that he hoped to force Russia to renegotiate that gas deal," says Oleksiy Kolomiyets, president of the independent Center for European and Transatlantic Studies in Kiev. "Based on a court decision, the deal might be declared illegal, and Moscow would have to come back to the table."
But in a blunt statement Monday, Russia's Foreign Ministry said "all gas agreements of 2009 were concluded with strict observance of the national legislation of both states and the internal law and for their signature the necessary instructions of presidents of Russia and Ukraine were received."
'Hands off Tymoshenko!'
Mr. Medvedev has invited Yanukovych to the Russian Black Sea city of Sochi on Thursday for talks, which seem very likely to include Russian displeasure over the Tymoshenko affair.
"This is quite a surprising turn, but the clear message from the Kremlin today was: hands off Tymoshenko!" says Mr. Kolomiyets. "Meanwhile Yanukovych's efforts to improve relations with the West are in huge jeopardy, and he looks increasingly isolated at home.
"He may have started this thinking that he could handily remove Tymoshenko from the political scene and change the terms of gas purchases with Russia at the same time, but the situation is rapidly spinning out of control, and now it's a really serious political crisis."