The Russian government believes the protests in Ukraine are a Western-backed coup attempt, and will continue to support President Viktor Yanukovych even if violence there continues, an adviser to the Kremlin says.
Sergei Markov, a political scientist who has consulted for the Kremlin throughout President Vladimir Putin’s 15 years at the top of Russian politics, also said it was increasingly possible that Ukraine could split into its pro-Western and pro-Russian halves, particularly if the opposition prevailed in the crisis.
“If the opposition comes to power by ignoring the law, probably it will lead to the split of the country,” Mr. Markov said in a telephone interview. “Maybe there will be two governments on Ukrainian territory.”
The comments come as diplomats from the European Union and Russia shuttled around Kiev on separate missions that took place on the most violent day in Ukraine’s post-Soviet history. There is growing talk of regional separatism and even civil war in the country of 46 million people.
The western city of Lviv, an opposition bastion, declared its autonomy from Mr. Yanukovych’s government on Wednesday, saying it was “following the will of society” after Mr. Yanukovych ordered the use of deadly force against anti-government protesters in Kiev.
The same day, the Russian-speaking region of Crimea, in the south of the country, released a statement lambasting the opposition and declaring it would defend its own autonomy if Mr. Yanukovych didn’t take firmer action to deal with the protesters who have occupied the centre of Kiev since November. “This is the beginning of the civil war,” read the statement published by the Crimean government.
Crimea, along with the Russified east of the country, backed Mr. Yanukovych during his 2010 election win, and Moscow holds wide influence in both regions. Most of the anti-government protesters hail from the centre and south of Ukraine, which are predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and keen on integration with the EU.
European and Russian leaders each escalated pressure on Mr. Yanukovych Thursday, with EU leaders calling on Mr. Yanukovych – who has a year remaining in the five-year term – to pull back his riot police from downtown Kiev, step down from office, and call snap elections.
Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, meanwhile, delivered a contrasting message suggesting Mr. Yanukovych needed to stop behaving like a “doormat,” and saying Russia could not release billions in promised financial aid until it was more confident in Ukrainian government.
The struggle for Ukraine has pitted the West against Russia from the outset. The trigger for the three-month-old antigovernment protests was a decision by Mr. Yanukovych Nov. 21 to walk away from a trade deal that would have put Ukraine on a course for greater integration with the EU.
He backed away under threat of economic retaliation from Russia, which is by far the largest market for Ukrainian-made goods. Mr. Yanukovych has indicated Ukraine may instead now join the Eurasian Union, a Moscow-led customs bloc made up of former Soviet states that is due to come into existence next year.
Russia has repeatedly pushed Mr. Yanukovych towards a harder line in dealing with the protests, using $15-billion (U.S.) in promised economic aid as both a carrot and a stick. Moscow put the aid on hold after Mr. Yanukovych made a series of concessions to the opposition, which included accepting the resignation of Prime Minister Mykola Azarov.
Meanwhile, Canada, the U.S. and the EU have repeatedly threatened sanctions against Mr. Yanukovych’s government. The EU announced on Thursday that it would target senior members of the Ukrainian government – though not yet Mr. Yanukovych – with visa bans and asset freezes, as well as tighter restrictions on the export of riot policing gear. Canada introduced its own visa ban against unnamed Ukrainian officials last month.
“I think (ministers) were truly alarmed, shocked by the scale of violence that has taken place, and that will drive the agenda as it drove the agenda today,” EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said of the sanctions.
The French, German and Polish foreign ministers shuttled between Mr. Yanukovych’s office and the headquarters of the opposition Thursday even as death toll climbed Thursday. The Kremlin, meanwhile, dispatched the country’s human rights commissioner, Vladimir Lukin, to Kiev for talks.
Mr. Putin discussed the crisis in telephone calls Thursday with British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Ms. Merkel had earlier discussed Ukraine with U.S. President Barack Obama.
The Kremlin said Mr. Putin had “stressed the critical importance of an immediate end to bloodshed, the need to take urgent measures to stabilize the situation and suppress extremist and terrorist attacks.” Russian media portray the pro-Western opposition as extremists with links to groups that fought alongside the Nazis in the Second World War.
Despite the diplomatic push, Mr. Markov said he expected negotiations would fail and there would be more violence in the days ahead.
“The opposition understands negotiations with Yanukovych as negotiations for his capitulation,” said Mr. Markov, who advised Mr. Yanukovych’s 2004 presidential campaign, one tarred by electoral fraud that sparked the pro-Western Orange Revolution that year.
“I expect Yanukovych will use [more] force and he will crush part of the opposition. After he uses force, the negotiations will start again and a compromise will be reached.”
He added that the Kremlin was irritated with Mr. Yanukovych for flirting with signing the EU trade deal, as well as for reneging on a promise to introduce Russian as the country’s second official language. But Moscow would back him now, Mr. Markov said.
“They don’t like Yanukovych very much. But at the same time, the Kremlin understands this coup d’état has the goal of crushing co-operation between Russia and Ukraine… Russia will do everything allowable by law to stop [the opposition] from coming to power.”
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