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Tensions between Ukraine and Russia, (On The Square: Putinism and the Ukrainian Catholic Church ) spiked the moment former Ukrainian Prime Minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, received the maximum, seven-year prison sentence for her part in negotiating a natural gas contract that obliges the two nations for the next decade.

The trial and sentence have been almost universally vilified as the political machination of current president, Viktor Yanukovytch. If true, the embattled leader may have unwittingly stepped into a bear-trap—one designed not for, but by, the Bear.

The martyr angle here ought not be exaggerated. Tymoshenko was not accused, nor was she convicted, of saintliness. She remains, however, a charismatic figure, only a whisker away from being elected president in 2010, with an army of newly-inflamed supporters. What’s going on?

A look at some headlines announcing the sentence intrigues:

Moscow Sees Anti-Russian Implications in Tymoshenko Verdict (Moscow Times), Tymoshenko Verdict Isolates Kyiv (Kyiv Post), West Fears Kiev’s Drift Into Russian Embrace (Financial Times), Putin Slams Prison Sentence For Former Ukraine PM (National Post.)

Were you to frame it with such headlines, the event might start to look more like a puzzle than a picture. One could wonder, for example, why such a supposedly pro-Russian leader as Yanukovych has gone on the offensive, using the global theater to threaten the Kremlin with legal action over issues related to natural gas.

The simple answer is that things are not nearly so cut and dry. Ukraine’s president has an entire country of interests to balance. In the U.S., when states sue the federal government, they typically consider it a matter of local self-interest, exercised in the spirit of an over-arching national patriotism. That analogy is limited, of course. Ukraine is not a province of Russia. Then again, it wasn’t, even as part of the Soviet Union, when it held its own membership in the UN.

At 2008’s NATO-Russia Council summit in Bucharest, Vladimir Putin was hardly subtle when he put it this way:

Well, you understand, George (Bush), Ukraine is not even a state . . . what is Ukraine? One part of its territory is in Eastern Europe, and the other part, the significant portion, was a gift from us.

In this, and numerous other statements, the message has been consistent—Ukraine is a confection—whose independence, like the gas it receives from Russia, will be regulated by Moscow. The one-way nature of the relationship is apparently something the Kremlin-leaning in Kiev either tolerate or simply will not admit to themselves. President Yanukovych seems to be of the second persuasion.

In a departure from his predecessor, he has made large concessions. They include a lease extension of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base in Sevastopol, an official, revisionist depiction of the Holodomor, and a halt to the pursuit of NATO membership. In return, he has gotten precious little.

By all accounts, Mr. Yanukovych has a low threshold for embarrassment. He now claims that compensation for these concessions—chiefly, improved terms for Russian natural resources—have not been forthcoming. Ostensibly, it is this that has led him to seek legal remedy.

Yulia Tymoshenko, may thus be a pawn in an ongoing chess match. Yanukovych, perhaps, wagered that he could undo the deal she brokered with Moscow and rid himself of her opposition in one elegant move. If that was the plan, he miscalculated.

A maneuver intended to galvanize power and boost prestige has so far proved a wedge, driving Ukraine further from the EU and closer to Putin’s envisioned Eurasian counter to the various Western alliances. This Customs Union has alarmed more than a few observers who consider it an initial blueprint for a new empire. The lines being drawn are sharp. And Moscow has been clear about the terms—Ukraine is either in fully or not at all.

Writing in the New York Times , Ellen Barry appears sanguine about how this will play out—a scenario in which President Yanukovych can save face and assuage EU concerns by decriminalizing Tymoshenko’s offense. But, Tymoshenko has insisted she will acknowledge no wrong doing in the matter, even if the government chooses to call it a “abuse of office” without criminal valence. If her feisty courtroom comportment is an indication, her continued refusal cannot be discounted.

For a fuller treatment of the case and its context, I recommend the work of Taras Razio—particularly this piece .

However this episode plays out, Ukraine seems likely to remain the tug-o-war, in-between place— the borderland from which its name derives. And its people will continue to bear the many burdens of that role. It is a burden made no lighter if their President has a foot caught in the teeth of a bear trap.

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