Russian moves in Ukraine and other nations carved out of the Soviet Union are reviving memories of the Cold War power struggles for influence between Moscow and Washington.
The fierce standoff in Kiev between pro-Western and pro-Russian elements in Ukrainian society is the latest manifestation of the revival of the competition between the two Cold War superpowers. Despite conflicting signals from Kiev in recent days, many see Russian President Vladimir Putin with the clear initiative in the contest.
Regional analysts say influence has manifested itself in multiple ways as part of Moscow's successful drive to pressure the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych to drop plans to sign a major trade and political agreement with the European Union.
The agreement could have clinched a tumultuous shift by the strategic former Soviet republic in the past decade toward embracing Western economic and political values. Mr. Yanukovych's sudden decision to turn his back on the deal late last month infuriated the nation's opposition parties and sent millions of pro-Western, pro-democracy demonstrators into the streets of Kiev.
The Obama administration was so concerned that it dispatched Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland to Kiev this week for emergency talks with Mr. Yanukovych.
"I hope the people of Ukraine know that the U.S. stands with you in your search for justice, for human dignity and security for economic health, and the European future that you have chosen and deserve," Ms. Nuland told reporters outside the presidential compound Wednesday after a two-hour "tough but realistic" private talk with Mr. Yanukovych.
Russia made its most obvious power play last summer when Moscow suddenly stopped all Ukrainian imports. The block was lifted a week later, but regional analysts say Mr. Putin's message to Kiev — and the European Union — was clear. It was hammered home with a subsequent threat to cut off Ukraine's access to energy from Russia if Ukraine pursued the EU pact.
"Putin's closure of Russian markets to Ukrainian exports and his threat to raise natural gas prices struck at the heart of the personal interests of many of the oligarchs who dominate Ukrainian politics," said Matthew Bryza, a former U.S. ambassador to Azerbaijan, another former Soviet republic facing pressure from Moscow in recent years.
"These tactics also infuriated European leaders as economic blackmail aimed at sabotaging EU foreign policy," Mr. Bryza wrote in a blog recently posted on the website of the Atlantic Council in Washington.
"What the Russians are playing is hardball and what the Europeans and the Americans are playing is softball," said Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow for Russian and Eurasian studies at the Heritage Foundation. "Sending [Ms. Nuland] to Kiev to say 'play nice.' That's softball."
"Putin wants to re-create the Russian sphere of influence, calling it the Eurasian Union," he said. "Some people have compared it to the Soviet Union. Putin understands that he has very high stakes, where as the Europeans are not willing to pay the price and to play to him."
Putin fans the flames
Mr. Putin himself appeared eager to fan the flames Thursday, leveling veiled insults at Washington during his annual state of the nation address while denying that Moscow wants to do anything other than respect the sovereignty of its neighbors.
"We do not aspire to be called some kind of superpower, understanding that as a claim to world or regional hegemony," Mr. Putin said. "We do not infringe on anyone's interests. We do not force our patronage on anyone or try to teach anyone how to live."
Mr. Putin has become personally involved in the Ukraine fight, holding a little-reported meeting last week in the Russian resort city of Sochi with Mr. Yanukovych. Moscow wants Kiev to join a "customs union" it is creating as an alternative to the EU, including Ukraine and two other former Soviet republics, Belarus and Kazakhstan.
U.S. intelligence community sources say they have been keeping a close eye on the Russian government's attempt to retain its power over the former Soviet states, including Ukraine.
"Russian efforts to influence the country's politics are nothing new," said one U.S. official, who spoke with The Washington Times this week on the condition of anonymity.
But regional specialists say the EU and the U.S. have done little to counter Moscow's manipulation of Ukraine.
Nicholas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College, said Western leaders, including President Obama, have appeared for months to be quietly willing to cede Ukraine to Russia.
"The U.S. and the European Union are not fighting very hard to win Ukraine over," Mr. Gvosdev said in an interview. "Basically, they've both made a calculation — and it may be a shortsighted one — that if Ukraine goes back into a closer relationship with Russia, the fundamental security of Western Europe is not threatened."
"Now, the EU and the U.S. are not going to come out and say that, but it's pretty much their perspective," he said, "while the Russians believe it to be a vital interest to consolidate a sphere of influence in the region while they can."
Ms. Nuland and other senior Obama administration officials, including Secretary of State John F. Kerry, have remained vague about whether they go beyond rhetoric to efforts to persuade the Yanukovych government to change its mind.
Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign policy chief, who also visited with the Ukrainian president in Kiev this week, made headlines upon returning Thursday to Brussels, declaring that Mr. Yanukovych had changed his mind again and now intends to sign the agreement. "Look, Yanukovych made it clear to me that he intends to sign the association agreement," Mrs. Ashton said.
But when asked Wednesday in Washington specifically what tools were being used to lure Ukraine back toward the West, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said she was simply "not going to get into all the specifics of any conversation."
Ms. Psaki said only that "all policy options, including sanctions, are on the table in our view."
Her comments reflect the Obama administration's overarching resistance to framing the situation as a kind of Cold War battle between the West and Russia, in order to preserve the tattered "reset" of bilateral relations touted by Hillary Rodham Clinton while she was secretary of state.
Lee Feinstein, who served as U.S. ambassador to Poland from 2009 until last year, said Ukraine's nuanced internal political struggles should not be framed in simple Cold War terms.
"I think this is the continuing and very long process of the unraveling and the consequences of the unraveling, and the working out of the unraveling of the former Soviet Union," said Mr. Feinstein, now a senior transAtlantic fellow of the German Marshall Fund.
"There's no question Russian bullying and threats as well as inducements are a factor. But so too is there a question of leadership in Ukraine," he said, citing questionable leadership by Mr. Yanukovych.
Mr. Yanukovych "has been playing the game, trying to see how much he can extract from Europe versus Moscow, and he may find himself in a position in which he ultimately doesn't get what he wants from Moscow, and maybe not elsewhere either."
Battle of values
Mr. Putin, in his 70-minute address, appeared to broaden the competition between Russia and the West to the area of values.
He portrayed himself as a protector of conservative values and offered scathing criticism of the West in part to shore up his domestic support base of blue-collar workers, farmers and state employees against mounting criticism from the urban middle class. But his speech also was pitched to conservatives worldwide.
"Many countries today are reviewing moral norms and erasing national traditions and distinctions between nationalities and cultures," Mr. Putin said. "The society is now required to demonstrate not only the sensible recognition of everyone's right to freedom of conscience, political outlook and private life, but also the mandatory recognition of the equivalence of good and evil, no matter how odd that may seem."
He argued that the "destruction of traditional values from the top" in countries he did not identify is "inherently undemocratic because it is based on abstract ideas and runs counter to the will of the majority of people."
Without naming any specific country, he blasted "attempts to enforce allegedly more progressive development models" on other nations, saying they have led only to "decline, barbarity and big blood" in the Middle East and North Africa.
• This article is based in part on wire service reports.
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