Russia has offered strong assurances of non-intervention in a fast-unraveling Ukraine. But experts say the Kremlin is watching events in Kiev with mounting concern as central government control grows increasingly tenuous – and warn that Moscow may react badly if the ten-week-old protest movement leads to sweeping constitutional changes in Ukraine.
President Vladimir Putin told European Union leaders in Brussels Tuesday that Moscow will not change the terms of its financial-aid package to Ukraine, even if the government in Kiev changes, and will not interfere in the increasingly turbulent political crisis there. He chided EU officials for what he described as cheer leading for anti-government protesters, and warned against the urge to "mediate" in the struggle for Ukraine's soul.
"I think the Ukrainian people are quite capable of deciding this for themselves," Mr. Putin said, according to a Kremlin transcript of his remarks.
"In any case, Russia has no intention of ever intervening. I can imagine how our European partners would react if at the height of the crisis in Greece or Cyprus, say, our foreign minister turned up at one of the anti-European Union meetings there and began making appeals to the crowd," he added, in a dig at EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and other EU officials who have addressed protesters on Kiev's Independence Square, or Maidan, over the past two months.
And he rejected even the idea of joint Russian-EU mediation of the conflict, unless the Ukrainians ask for it. "I am not sure that Ukraine needs such mediation. If it does, it should say so. I think though that the more mediators, the more problems arise," Putin said.
Experts say that Putin's surprisingly calm demeanor is probably based on the hope that Ukraine's crisis will blow over, as it has in the past, leaving the next government in Kiev to deal with the stark economic realities that have always handed the geopolitical advantage to Moscow.
"Putin looked quite confident, and that's because he's been here before. The Orange Revolution ten years ago scared him terribly, and he feared Ukraine would be pulled into the Western orbit," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the pro-business Moscow daily Kommersant.
"But that didn't happen. The Orange leaders talked about joining NATO and the EU, but had to come to Moscow to arrange gas and trade deals, and Putin found he could work with them. So, Putin seems to have come to the conclusion that Ukraine is like a volcano that will erupt from time to time. It's a natural disaster and you just have to get used to it. That's why he comes off looking far more pragmatic, even phlegmatic, than he did the last time around," he says.
But there are growing signs that the current crisis in Kiev could be much worse than the Orange Revolution, which featured no violence at all and ended in a sweeping constitutional compromise that satisfied all parties.
"The most dangerous variant for Russia is the threat of destabilization in Ukraine. If the situation goes out of control there, it could lead to civil war," says Alexei Vlasov, director of the Center for the Study of the Post-Soviet Space at Moscow State University.
The specter of Yugoslavia-style breakup in Ukraine, unthinkable in even the recent past, was invoked by former Ukrainian President Leonid Kravchuk in an emotional appeal to the Ukrainian parliament Wednesday in which he urged deputies to "act with the greatest responsibility" and place the country's security above their own political interests.
Mr. Vlasov says that, unlike the Orange Revolution crisis a decade ago, there are no popular and credible opposition leaders who could assume power and quickly quell the crisis.
"If a new government came in, it would not be stable or durable," he says. "It will have trouble being regarded as legitimate in the [pro-Russian] south and east of the country, if it has come about through putting pressure on Yanukovych. The country is split. And if the opposition turns to changing the constitution, then nobody can say what kind of Ukraine will emerge," he says.
A Ukrainian conundrum
For the Kremlin, the threat of ongoing political instability in Ukraine poses multiple challenges, even if the civil war scenario is avoided.
"The idea that people can take to the streets and force changes in government and policy orientation is something Putin worries about all the time. Though the the Ukrainian example is not spreading in Russia at the moment, that doesn't mean it won't have any effect," says Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute of Strategic Assessments in Moscow.
"Ukraine is very close to Russia. We have an open border, most Russians have friends or even family members in Ukraine, anything that happens down there is going to have a big impact in Russia," he says.
Mr. Strokan says that, despite Putin's business-as-usual assurances to the EU, Russian policy toward Ukraine is in flux.
"The political dynamic we see in Ukraine is that demands are being made by 'the Maidan' and opposition leaders claim that they are just the messengers carrying these demands to the government. And these demands are growing more radical. The opposition is not interested in the composition of government, or this-or-that law, but they want major constitutional changes" in the way Ukraine is governed, he says.
"Russia's attitude will be determined by many factors, but particularly by how radical the government that emerges from this struggle in Ukraine will turn out to be. If it declares that it wants immediate association with the EU, I have my doubts that Russia will go ahead with its $15 billion loan or any other economic concessions to Ukraine.... But right now, the consensus in Moscow appears to be wait-and-see. Let the strongest emerge from this mess, and then we'll decide how to deal with it," he adds.