Protesters have been clashing once again with security forces in Kiev. Even as the government is trying to limit transportation links to Kiev to prevent the protests from swelling, protesters appear to be having decent success in preventing security reinforcements from reaching the capital. Uprisings are meanwhile spreading across the Western edge of Ukraine, with Lviv so far leading the chorus of calls for autonomy.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich took a gamble. With more radical protesters filling Maidan Square and Germany appearing reluctant to push a confrontation with Russia, Yanukovich felt the timing was right to step up his security response to isolate the radicals in Kiev. Outside the heavy media focus on Kiev, there is still a significant constituency outside of the city that feels alienated by the protesters and that was precisely the sentiment Yanukovich wanted to capitalize on.
But that plan is obviously running into serious challenges. Kiev sits at a narrow point of the Dnieper River, a geographic boundary that effectively divides the more Western-oriented Ukrainians with those in the east that identify more with Russia. The extremes on both ends are embodied in Lviv, where European Union flags now drape government buildings, and Crimea in the predominantly Russian-speaking east, where Russia has its own naval base.
These divisions will widen the weaker Kiev grows, and this is a scenario that Russia is taking seriously. Russia needs a friendly government in Kiev to create a buffer with the West. On a tactical level, that means a government that will honor agreements to host Russian troops, will work with, not against, Moscow to integrate their economies and energy networks and one that will internalize the consequences of cooperating too closely with Europe and the United States.
Russia's primary interest is in directing Ukraine's foreign policy, while it has much lower tolerance for managing internal Ukrainian politics. This is why various Russian officials have been floating the idea of a federalized Ukraine in recent days. If Kiev is going to be paralyzed, Russia would prefer a paralyzed Kiev in a federalized system where it can at least cement control over Ukraine's pro-Russian regions. Russia would only turn toward this option if it becomes clear that the Europeans (Germany, Poland, Hungary and Romania) in particular, are willing to throw their support behind rebel governments in western Ukraine in defiance of Moscow.
This would be a big line to cross, and Europe is already heavily consumed with problems to the west of the continent. Russia meanwhile maintains heavy leverage over Ukraine's increasingly fragile economy. Russian President Vladimir Putin is testing just how far the Europeans are willing to go with U.S. prodding, but he also has a contingency plan if Ukraine ends up fragmenting.