By VLADIMIR ISACHENKOV, Associated Press
MOSCOW (AP) — A successful Olympics behind him, President Vladimir Putin is facing what may become the most dramatic challenge of his rule: how to respond to the turmoil in Ukraine, a country he has declared vital for Russia's interests, which is home to millions of Russian-speakers and hosts a major Russian navy base.
Some in Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and south already have begged the Kremlin to help protect them against what they fear could be violence by the victorious protesters who toppled Ukraine's Moscow-backed leader. Putin has refrained from taking a public stance on Ukraine amid the Sochi Games, but the mounting tensions could quickly leave him with a stark choice: Stick to diplomacy and risk losing face at home, or open a Pandora's box by entering the fray.
If Moscow openly backs separatist-minded groups in Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula that serves as the base for Russia's Black Sea Fleet, it could unleash devastating hostilities that Europe hasn't seen since the Balkan wars. And ignoring pleas for help from pro-Russian groups in Ukraine could shatter Putin's carefully manicured image of the tough ruler eager to stand up to the West, eroding his conservative support base at home, where his foes could be encouraged by the Ukrainian example.
Facing such high risks, Putin has remained silent, weighing his options. His premier, Dmitry Medvedev, on Monday poured scorn on the new Ukrainian authorities who replaced President Viktor Yanukovych, and questioned their legitimacy. But he wouldn't say what action Russia might take to protect its interests.
"If you consider Kalashnikov-toting people in black masks who are roaming Kiev to be the government, then it will be hard for us to work with that government," Medvedev said.
The Russian Foreign Ministry criticized the West for turning a blind eye to what Moscow described as the opposition reneging on its agreement signed Friday to form a unity government and aiming to "suppress dissent in various regions of Ukraine with dictatorial and, sometimes, even terrorist methods."
Amid spiraling tensions and increasingly tough rhetoric, Putin's best hope for striking a peaceful compromise on Russian interests in Ukraine could paradoxically be former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was freed Saturday after more than 2½ years behind bars.
The blond-braided Tymoshenko, who narrowly lost the 2010 presidential vote to Yanukovych and landed in prison on abuse of office charges that were denounced by the West, immediately jumped to the forefront of Ukraine's political scene. She flew to the capital immediately after her release to speak to tens of thousands of demonstrators on Kiev's Independence Square, known as the Maidan.
Tymoshenko's charisma, her ambitions and unparalleled political skills would make her all but certain to win the Ukrainian presidency in early elections set for May. Putin, who had good ties with Ukraine's fiery ex-premier in the past, could hope for striking a deal with her that would safeguard Russian interests without the need to resort to force.
"If she consolidates power, Putin will be quite happy. They understand each other perfectly well," said Stanislav Belkovsky, a political consultant who advised the Kremlin and worked in Ukraine. "He has good ties with Tymoshenko, and her triumph would suit him."
Tymoshenko, who comes from eastern Ukraine, could be an ideal peacemaker, restoring an uneasy balance between Ukraine's Russian-speaking east and south, and its western regions that abhor Russian influence.