Relations between Russia and the European Union are facing "a moment of truth" over the deepening crisis in Ukraine, and could be wrecked by the "us or them" tactics of Western diplomats trying to sway Ukraine's political choices, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov warned Thursday.
But implicit in Mr. Lavrov's commentary, published in the Moscow daily Kommersant, is the germ of a proposal that Moscow and the West should agree to step back from the fray in Ukraine. This would give the crisis-ridden country the breathing space it needs to begin building a united nation out of the disparate and fractious elements it inherited from the Soviet era. Regardless, Moscow would likely bristle at any future Ukrainian integration with Europe at Russia's expense, say experts.
"There is the impression that our Western partners often act instinctively, being guided by the simplistic friend-or-foe principle and not thinking too much about the long-term implications of their steps," Lavrov wrote.
"It was an unpleasant surprise to discover that in the minds of EU and US officials, the ‘free’ choice of the Ukrainian people has already been made and means only a ‘European future.'"
Moscow's vantage point
Lavrov's outburst, which runs to more than 2,300 words in Russian, reads like a list of deepening worries over the drift of events in Kiev.
To date Moscow has refrained from overt displays of political interference as Ukraine has been rocked by massive pro-Europe demonstrations. But it agreed to toss in a financial lifeline – $15 billion in now-suspended financial aid – to help President Viktor Yanukovych's government to avert a default.
Meanwhile, US and EU officials have shuttled through Kiev to exert the kind of behind-the-scenes stage management of which Russia is often accused, and without ponying up financial aid. And, alarmingly for Moscow, this diplomacy appears to be working.
"Lavrov's article underscores Russia's growing unease about Ukraine," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist who covers Ukraine for Kommersant.
Mr. Strokan argues that Russia's overt political meddling in Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution backfired, which is why Russian President Vladimir Putin has instead opted to use his checkbook this time. But it has not paid off, he says.
"The Europeans and Americans, who haven't put up a penny yet, have the diplomatic advantage in Kiev.... And we're standing there looking like idiots," Mr. Strokan says.
Last week, a tape recording of US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, possibly leaked by Russian intelligence, revealed her private thoughts about which of Ukraine's opposition leaders should be part of any new government.
Strokan says Russia is frustrated by what it sees as US and European meddling but it also ready to be flexible. "I think Lavrov's article should be read as a cri de couer from Russia, but also a warning that Russian policy isn't set in stone. It can change," he says.
In his commentary, Lavrov warned of the dangers of "social engineering" by outside powers, citing Iraq and Afghanistan as examples. He said past attempts to dictate the development of an independent Ukraine had all ended in failure. That, say experts, could be a signal that Moscow is looking for a deal.
"Between the lines we can see a novel proposal being advanced by Lavrov here," says Alexander Segal, a Kiev-based expert with the independent Institute for the Study of Globalization and Social Movements.
"He's suggesting we agree to regard Ukraine as a neutral country, one that belongs to neither bloc but cooperates with both. Historically, Ukraine has belonged in between, and is always at its most stable when it's occupying that middle ground."
Behind Lavrov's leaden prose is a threat that should Ukraine be torn completely from Moscow's orbit, an alienated Russia could tilt further away from the West.
"Lavrov's article can be seen as a last appeal to the West, to convince them to come to their senses and stop moving these dividing lines eastward across the face of Europe," says Vladimir Zharikhin, deputy director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow.
Eventually, he argues, Moscow may feel it has no alternative but to ally politically and military with China. "It's not where we want to be, not part of our thinking right now, but we could be made to feel like there's no other choice," he says.