MOSCOW – The Russian president, incensed by the West's confrontation over the Ukrainian election (search), has dramatically raised the volume of Kremlin rhetoric, suggesting the United States is acting like a dictator and the West is forcing a flawed vision of democracy on the world.
Vladimir Putin's (search) harsh words speak louder than the Kremlin's actions, but the fray in Russia's front yard has opened old sores in relations with the West and threatened to push the former Cold War (search) adversaries further apart after more than a decade of entente. Worse, Russia could be heading for a renewed, dangerous isolation.
The increasingly open war of words over the former Soviet republic of Ukraine has become an international game of chicken, with disillusionment and geopolitical ambitions threatening to trump existing wariness about making any move that would ruin hard-won improvements in relations among one-time ideological foes.
"It's a very uncomfortable situation both for Russia and for the West, because there are dangers on both sides," said Georgy Mirsky, the chief researcher at the Institute for World Economics and International Relations in Moscow.
Putin, he said, is "walking a tightrope," pressured on one side by Russia's anti-Western political elite — along with his own concerns about Western encroachment — and on the other by his realization that European and U.S. investment is vital to his country's future.
Putin's recent heated rhetoric reflects his dilemma. At a Russia-European Union summit late last month, he issued one in a series of increasingly strident accusations of Western meddling in Ukraine while emphasizing that Russia's "strategic choice" was to be part of Europe.
Kremlin-allied pundits and politicians, meanwhile, are calling on the country to pull out of European institutions they say are being used as bludgeons with which to berate Russia over democracy and human rights.
Moscow also is showing signs of a diplomatic shift to the East.
"Evidence is growing to support the view that Putin is trying to cement a close relationship with both India and China," Chris Weafer, chief strategist at Moscow's Alfa Bank, said in a research paper earlier this week.
The Kremlin wants "not only to build broader economic ties that will allow Russia to lessen its economic dependency on the EU and the U.S., but also to attempt to build an informal — at least initially — alliance that might act as a counterbalance against the U.S. and, soon, EU efforts to influence the global political agenda," Weafer wrote.
In India last week, Putin suggested Washington is seeking a "dictatorship of international affairs."
Days later in Turkey, he accused the West of trying to force its vision of democracy on the former Soviet Union. He added that he was concerned that those who resist "will be punished with a truncheon made of bombs and missiles, as it was in Belgrade" — a reference to the 1999 NATO bombing of the former Yugoslavia. That confrontation — like the Ukrainian crisis — seriously damaged Russia's ties with the West.
The Ukraine dispute has added to an already significant strain on relations, amid Western concerns about democracy, human rights and the rule of law under Putin and Russian anger over criticism of what it calls internal affairs. In Ukraine, each side said the other crossed a line.
Putin has been criticized in the West for actively supporting Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych in the election, congratulating him twice on a fraud-marred victory that was later thrown out by Ukraine's Supreme Court, and denouncing the idea of repeating the Nov. 21 runoff — as the court ordered.
In Russia, many fear a victory for opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko would pull Ukraine out of Moscow's orbit. Kremlin allies have called Yushchenko a pawn in a Western plot to gain control of the strategically important nation.
"We're determined to continue to uphold the Ukrainian people's right to free and fair elections (and) persuade the Russians not to see this as a zero-sum game," a senior U.S. diplomat said Wednesday on condition of anonymity.
Still, Mirsky said, Western countries rely on resource-rich Russia for energy and are wary of driving the nuclear-armed giant out of their camp.
"I don't think the West will go too far to pressure Russia — to lengths that would touch sensitive places," Yevgeny Volk, head of the Heritage Foundation's Moscow office, agreed.
Mirsky, too, said that he does not foresee a "catastrophic scenario" in Russia's relations with the West. But both believe the current chill will persist.