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However the disputed election finally plays out, it has undermined the Bush Administration's cozy relations with Putin, at least behind the scenes. In his first term, George W. Bush was willing to give Putin a free hand in what Russia calls the near abroad, the states that spun off from the broken Soviet Union. At the same time, Bush has made encouraging democracy around the world a central pillar of his presidency. In Ukraine those two policies clash mightily. Washington spent much of Ukraine's bitterly fought presidential campaign studiously avoiding confrontation with Putin and stuck to that line in the early days after the vote. But at midweek, Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear Washington's support for Yushchenko, saying the U.S. was "deeply disturbed by the extensive and credible reports of fraud." The next day, at an European Union-- Russia summit, Putin emphasized that the dispute should be settled without outside interference. No other country has a "moral right to push a major European state to mass disorder," he warned.
The Kremlin regards countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus as vital buffers between Russia and the West. Like Russian rulers for the past two centuries, Putin "equates security with well-defined zones of interest," says James Sherr, an Eastern Europe specialist at Oxford Uni-versity. Those zones have shrunk in recent years as the Baltic states and Georgia turned sharply toward the West. Putin doesn't want to see the same thing happen in Ukraine.
But analysts in the U.S. are worried that Putin may have overplayed his hand. If he were seen to be encouraging the east in its secessionist plans, the protests could turn violent. As the Ukraine Supreme Court weighs its decision, there will be opportunities for Russia to stir up separatism. Whether that happens will depend on Putin's ability to reconcile traditional Russian interests and fears with the reality of modern Europe, says Michael Emerson of the Center for European Policy in Brussels. "The more Putin pushes realpolitik," he says, "the more Ukrainians will want to go in the other direction."
Those who want Ukraine to one day join the European Union watched last week's events with special interest. The country has been caught in a kind of catch-22, says Andrew Wilson, a lecturer at University College London and author of The Ukrainians: Unexpected Nation. "Brussels has been reluctant to give an invitation until Ukraine internalizes European values in politics and business, and Ukraine has been unwilling or unable to reform until that invitation is given." The current crisis could prompt both sides to break the impasse.
In Independence Square, Taras Kuchma, a physician from Drogobych, in the west, sarcastically thanked Yanukovych and Putin for having achieved the impossible. "They finally forced the Ukrainians to unite to become a nation," he said. But that unity was not in evidence last week, and it may still turn out to be an impossible dream. --With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington, Helen Gibson/ London, Valeria Korchagina/ Moscow, Tadeusz L. Kucharski/Warsaw, Andrew Purvis/Vienna and Jonathan Shenfield/Paris