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KIEV, Ukraine — As two large, swirling crowds faced off in Kiev on Saturday in public squares less than a quarter of a mile apart, pushing the country closer to chaos, they were fighting over more than the future of Ukraine.

The huge anti-government, pro-Europe demonstrations that have gripped the capital, Kiev, since late last month, and the tens of thousands of supporters of the embattled president, Viktor Yanukovych, who poured into central Kiev on Saturday for a mass counter-rally, are proxies for a larger clash.

It is a battle over economic and ideological sway between Western Europe, emerging from a five-year fiscal malaise and intent on renewing the eastward export of Western values, and Russia, intent on blocking that advance and guarding its sphere of influence.

What on some levels seems to be a Cold War throwback is very much a 21st-century contest with implications for tens of millions of people who view Western-style democracy as their destiny, but one in which Russia unexpectedly has grabbed the upper hand by answering European soft power with hard realpolitik.

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“We went to a knife fight with a baguette,” said Andrew Wilson, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The Kremlin has threatened trade sanctions and indicated a potential willingness to spend billions of dollars in a bailout for Ukraine to protect its military and financial interests, which include Black Sea naval bases and transnational gas pipelines. Western officials, by contrast, are mostly confining themselves to insisting that Yanukovych listen to the many citizens who want closer ties to Western Europe.

The West may also have miscalculated by pushing Yanukovych hard on economic changes that could clearly undermine his chances for re-election.

Ukraine’s political crisis was touched off when Yanukovych refused to sign far-reaching political and free-trade accords with Europe last month. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Kiev, and thousands more in other cities across Ukraine, to express support for European integration.

To derail the accords, Russia acted aggressively, threatening Draconian trade sanctions that could devastate Ukraine’s fragile economy. European officials, meanwhile, did little more than restate their view that Ukraine would enjoy a brighter future with the West. There was little sign of urgency, even after talks between Ukraine and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over aid seemed to fall apart.

No surprise

That Russia would react so strongly should not have come as a surprise.

When European leaders gathered in Prague in May 2009 to announce the Eastern Partnership, an ambitious new foreign-policy initiative to reach out to former Soviet republics, Russia immediately registered alarm. “Some states view this partnership as a partnership against Russia,” said Dmitry Medvedev, then president.

That month, NATO held military exercises in Georgia, one of the Eastern Partner countries, adding to the Kremlin’s consternation. European officials brushed off the concerns.

“It can only be in the interest of Russia and Europe as a whole for these countries to become more stable, prosperous and open,” Javier Solana, the European Union’s (EU) foreign-policy chief, said at the time.

That position reflected Europe’s view — still prevalent — that the appeal and advantages of Western integration are self-evident and do not require a hard sell.

Two of Europe’s main conditions for the sweeping political and free-trade agreements that Yanukovych refused to sign last month — releasing his political nemesis, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, and undertaking painful economic changes — were likely to dim his re-election prospects.

The head of the EU Delegation to Ukraine, Jan Tombinski, said: “The difference between two approaches — the one proposed by Russia with the Customs Union, and the European — is … clear. One is the European one, based on the principle of open economy and competitiveness; the other one is based on protectionism.”

But the Kremlin’s firmer grasp of regional politics has given Russia a clear edge. Since backing away from the accords with Europe, Yanukovych has been in negotiations with President Vladimir Putin over desperately needed economic aid, and he is scheduled to meet with him Tuesday, even as the West has urged a renewal of stalled negotiations with the IMF.

Influential support

While officials in Brussels and Washington, D.C., have said they are working with the IMF to develop a package that Yanukovych could accept, flexibility is limited by Ukraine’s poor track record in carrying out reforms demanded in exchange for previous assistance.

Europe and the West could win out. In recent days, some of Ukraine’s wealthiest and most influential businessmen, known as oligarchs, led by the nation’s wealthiest man, Rinat Akhmetov, have spoken out in support of the anti-government protesters, clearly worried about instability and deepening financial crisis.

Edge to Europe

Adrian Karatnycky, an expert on Ukraine with the Atlantic Council of the United States, who was in Kiev last week, said the Ukrainian people and the sustained protest movement seemed to tip things in Europe’s favor, winning the support of oligarchs already frustrated at corruption and corporate raiding that enriched Yanukovych’s family and other close associates.

In a sign that Yanukovych was under increasing pressure to make concessions, his office said Saturday that he had indefinitely suspended two officials, the Kiev city manager, Oleksandr Popoov, and deputy national-security chief, Volodomyr Sivkovych, for their role in a violent crackdown by the police on protesters Nov. 30.

In addition, it was unclear whether the pro-government protesters had staying power. Throughout Saturday and into the night, a huge crowd gathered on Independence Square, the main site of protests against the government, drawn in part by the appearance of a popular rock band. By contrast, European Square, where pro-government demonstrators had rallied, was empty by early evening.

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