MOSCOW — 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.
She is burdened, however, by the legacy of insider deals and corruption allegations during her business and government careers, which may challenge her campaign. She also faces the tough task of winning the trust of some of the protesters, who are suspicious of old players and want fresh faces and strong action. And she will have to walk a fine line between publicly taking an anti-Kremlin posture to win votes in western regions and assuaging residents of the east that their interests will be protected.
For Putin, she could actually make a more convenient partner that the hesitant and indecisive Yanukovych, who had tried to maneuver between Russia and the West and provoked public anger by abruptly shelving a pact with the European Union in favor of a bailout from Moscow.
Russia's state-controlled broadcasters heaped scorn on Yanukovych, casting him as a leader who was too weak to use force to establish order and betrayed police who had stood behind him. That's a clear sign the Kremlin sees him as a discarded asset.
Reports about Yanukovych hiding in the Crimea, which hosts Russia's naval base, could encourage some activists in Kiev and western Ukraine to pressure the government to apprehend him. They want to put him on trial for sanctioning the use of force against protesters that resulted in scores of deaths.
Such a move could set the stage for violence in the Crimea, where most of the population speaks Russian and abhors nationalist groups from western Ukraine.
Any such clashes would in turn put pressure on Putin to intervene, and he could come under the influence of more hawkish figures in his administration who have been advocating a tough line on Ukraine to expose alleged Western plots to pry the country from Russia's sphere of influence.
The talk about reclaiming the Crimea long has been rife in Russia's political circles. The region fell under Russia's control in the 18th century under Catherine the Great and only became part of Ukraine in 1954, when then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it from Russian to Ukrainian administrative control.
Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs magazine and head of the Council for Foreign and Defense Policies, said that for the Kremlin the key indicators would be the action by the new government regarding the Black Sea Fleet's presence in Ukraine and authorities' pledges to stay away from military blocs.Comment on this story
He said that if Moscow sees Kiev reneging on these issues, it would set off alarms in the Kremlin as a possible signal of Ukraine joining NATO.
"Ukraine in NATO has been a red line," Lukyanov said. "If that happens, various options will come under consideration, including appeal to certain parts of Ukraine, including the Crimea."
He warned that a violent confrontation between pro-Moscow protesters and demonstrators supporting the new Ukrainian authorities could force Russia to act.
"If clashes occur in the Crimea, Russia will start by issuing harsh statements and put the Black Sea Fleet on high alert," Lukyanov said. "Russia couldn't ignore it. There are all kinds of risks."