As yet another negotiated truce dissolves in Kiev, Russian leaders are venting their frustration with what they regard as the dithering of beleaguered Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych – who seems unable to either cement a durable deal with his street-backed opponents, or to crush them with decisive force.
"We need partners who are in good shape and for the authorities that work in Ukraine to be legitimate and effective, so that people don't wipe their feet on the authorities like a doormat," Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev was quoted by Russian news agencies as saying.
"The [Ukrainian] authorities must concentrate on the objective of protecting the people, protecting the law enforcers who protect the state interests and the people themselves. Only in this case we could further develop the full-pledged economic cooperation," he added, suggesting that the latest $2 billion tranche of Russia's $15 billion financial aid package to Kiev, released this week, might be jerked back again.
Russian experts say the Kremlin is scrambling to assess its options as Yanukovych's government appears to unravel. Moscow's earlier view that Ukraine's drift toward the European Union could be checked by manipulating aid, they say, may quickly give way to more dire scenarios.
Several suggest it may be a matter of days, if not hours, before Yanukovych is forced to flee Kiev to his political strongholds in eastern Ukraine, and try to reconstitute his – technically legitimate and legally elected – government in a relatively stable place like Kharkov or Donetsk. But that would accelerate the process the Russians are referring to euphemistically as the "federalization" of Ukraine.
That would mean the country's effective dismemberment into separately administered zones headed by political forces loyal either to the pro-EU protest movement centered on Kiev's Maidan square, or to the pro-Russian government of Yanukovych.
"I think we can expect decisive interference from [Moscow] in the near future," says Andrei Piontkovsky, a longtime Kremlin critic. "Creating a situation of chaos and violence plays into the Kremlin's hands, and provides a justification for Russian intervention and the division of Ukraine. This is the scenario that's coming onto the agenda: to break up Ukraine and pull the east and Crimea into Russia's orbit."
The disintegration of Kiev's power is already well under way in western Ukraine, where pro-Maidan forces have already seized government headquarters and police stations, and blockaded Army bases, in most major cities of the overwhelmingly Ukrainian-speaking and nationalist-minded territory.
"We are witnessing the crumbling of the institutions of central power. It's not just about a few government offices in the west anymore, it's about the very basis of state authority. Yanukovych seems increasingly unable to make any levers of power work, even in Kiev," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant.
"From the Russian point of view, Yanukovych made a fatal mistake by not nipping this rebellion in the bud, even if it meant using brutal force. Nor has he proven capable of striking a deal with the opposition that would mean early elections and the emergence of some legitimately elected government in Kiev that Moscow could work with," Mr. Strokan says. "Instead, he's antagonized everyone with his indecisiveness. Now we see signs that even the security forces are starting to desert him. He will not be able to hold on in Kiev for much longer and, whatever happens next, any semblance of effective central governance will be gone."
Dmitry Orlov, director of the independent Agency of Political and Economic Communications, who often expresses the Kremlin point of view, says that President Vladimir Putin and his immediate advisers still believe the situation will stabilize, and Moscow can return to shaping the government's behavior by using economic levers such as financial aid and energy supplies.
"But apart from Putin and Medvedev, there is a group in the Russian political elite that's demanding tougher actions from Moscow, including the seizure of parts of Ukrainian territory and more active intervention in Ukraine's internal developments," he says. "We see that Ukraine is growing extremely unstable, unpredictable, and may even be on the brink of civil war. Everything now depends on whether the Ukrainian authorities and opposition leaders are able to pull back from the edge and make some sort of deal."