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Ukraine feels nervous as big powers Russia and United States debate its fate

As top diplomats from Russia and the United States have met in Europe's capitals to decide Ukraine's fate in recent weeks, there's been a conspicuous absence: a representative from Ukraine.

Russia has refused to deal with Ukraine's new government since protests in February ousted the pro-Russian president. And while the West supports the fledgling leadership, it has left an impression that it's in charge of talks with the Kremlin.

Time and again through history, Ukraine has been caught in big power politics. Historians draw parallels between how Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin divided Europe at Yalta after World War II — trapping eastern European countries in the Soviet orbit. Now some Ukrainians fear history is repeating itself as they are shut out of negotiations — and sit on the sidelines waiting for a verdict.

Ordinary Ukrainians are mostly grateful for Western efforts to mediate the crisis and more than anything are terrified by the prospect of war.

But officials have sought to stress that Ukraine's voice must be heard.

At a news conference last week, Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Danylo Lubkivsky insisted that decisions regarding Ukraine's future must not be made without Kiev's input: "No real dialogue is possible without Ukraine," Lubkivsky said. That is why the announcement this week of high-level talks between the United States, the EU, Ukraine and Russia — expected to take place in the next 10 days — was met with hope in Kiev.

Despite angry rhetoric, the West has largely accepted the reality of Russia's takeover of Crimea. Diplomatic efforts are now focused on preventing Russia's military incursion into the Russian-speaking east and south of Ukraine, where Moscow claims it needs to protect Russian-speakers. With thousands of Russian troops amassed near the border with Ukraine, Moscow seeks to dictate conditions: It wants to turn Ukraine into a loose federation that it can control, and is pushing for Russian to become the second official state language, on par with Ukrainian.

Kiev has so far refused to cave to Moscow's demands — as any step that dents Ukraine's hopes of integrating with the West will be met with fierce resistance from the Maidan, the pro-Western protest movement. More than 100 people were killed in the protesters' clashes with police.

But facing enormous military and economic pressure from Russia, there is little Ukraine can do on its own, some experts say — so Kiev has to rely on Western patronage.

"During the Cold War, U.S. secretaries of state and Soviet foreign ministers routinely negotiated the outcome of crises and the fate of countries. It has been a long time since such talks have occurred, but last week a feeling of deja vu overcame me," George Freedman of Stratfor, a U.S. global intelligence think tank, wrote recently.

"Americans and Russians negotiated over everyone's head to find a way to defuse the crisis in Ukraine and, in the course of that, shape its fate."

But Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now an analyst at the Brookings Institution, contests that view. He says that the United States, under Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomacy, wants to ensure that Ukraine is an active partner in talks.

"I think Mr. Lavrov would like to make this a U.S.-Russia negotiation on Ukraine's fate ... I don't think secretary Kerry plans to go there," said Pifer. He cast Kerry as telling the Russians: "You have to have this conversation with Ukraine."

In Kiev, political scientist Volodymyr Fesenko said that the international community needs to abandon the mentality that it's others who will decide Ukraine's fate, while also stressing that the West is key to a successful future — and that, ultimately, anything is better than war.

"We don't live in the 19th century and Ukraine must decide on its own what its foreign and internal policy should be," Fesenko said, but added: "Let Putin negotiate with the West on the Ukrainian matter rather than go to war with Ukraine."

In Kiev, the threat of a war is on everybody's mind.

"I feel anxious for our Ukraine, for the future of our children. I don't want our fears to come true," said Oleksandr Osadchy, 50, a construction entrepreneur, who helped his 4-year-old daughter Anya to a slide in a playground in central Kiev one recent afternoon. "War is horror, blood and dirt. God forbid."

Over recent weeks, Russia has skillfully waged psychological warfare against Ukraine.

First, Russia's parliament authorized the government to use military force in Ukraine. Then, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia reserves the right to use "any means at our disposal" to protect Russian speakers. Soon, the Russian Foreign Ministry was saying that it was considering requests for such protection.

Even children and their parents became victims of the campaign of fear: A popular Russian bedtime TV show, called "Good night Kids," featured Filya the dog packing a backpack to go to war.

Tetyana Otroshchenko, a retired small shop owner who was watching her 5-year-old grandson Timofey jump around in the playground, said she needed to travel north to near the border with Russia to visit a relative's grave — but was afraid.

For Otroshchenko, the West can negotiate with Russia all its wants — as long as it keeps Ukraine safe.

"I trust the West, they are doing the right thing," Otroshchenko said. "Because it is impossible for our government to deal Putin if the West does not help."