As Europe takes the lead in trying to end bloodshed in the Ukrainian capital, Vladimir Putin is running out of options to shape events in a country that he sees as firmly within Russia's sphere of influence.
As the confrontation over Ukraine's future spun out of control last week, fears emerged that those unhappy with the Russian president's repressive rule might take the same aggressive path of open revolt against the Kremlin and unleash a bloodbath. And some wondered in nervous whispers whether Putin was intent enough on ensuring Kiev's allegiance that he might send in troops to quell the unrest.
While analysts consider Putin to have made a dangerous mistake in bullying Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych into rejecting an EU association deal in November, they see no chance of the Kremlin riding in to rescue the embattled Yanukovych for many reasons, not least the fact the leaders despise each other.
Putin may lack sterling democratic credentials but "he's no dictator", said former Russian prime minister Mikhail Kasyanov, who broke with Putin after his first presidential term.
Putin seemed to signal the limit to his willingness to keep a malleable figure in the Ukrainian presidency when, at Yanukovych's request for a Russian emissary to join tense all-night talks with three EU foreign ministers, the Kremlin dispatched human rights ombudsman and former opposition figure Vladimir Lukin. If Yanukovych expected a sympathetic Kremlin observer, he was sadly mistaken, said Igor Yurgens, head of Moscow's Institute for Contemporary Development.
Putin a few weeks ago seemed to have the upper hand after offering a US$15 billion lifeline and cut-price gas to shore up the country's economy. Yet Yanukovych has become ever-more isolated as pro-European activists hold on to Kiev's main square.
"Putin must be full of rage," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin adviser. "He's urging Yanukovych to re-establish control and just doesn't understand what is going on."
Putin, who once described the break-up of the Soviet Union as the biggest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century, must decide how far he's prepared to go. Current and former Kremlin advisers say his choices if Yanukovych is forced out range from encouraging Ukraine's Russian-speaking regions to secede to a limited military intervention - a strategy fraught with risks.
McClatchy Tribune, Bloomberg