MOSCOW — For two days it seemed that President Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine had vanished.
The presidency announced last weekend that he had departed to Russia for talks with President Vladimir Putin. But nothing more was heard about his whereabouts until two days later when the Kremlin confirmed he had indeed met the Russian strongman.
Ending days of silence, the Ukrainian foreign ministry revealed Yanukovych had met Putin to discuss economic relations. Exactly what was discussed, where, and for how long remains a mystery.
But after Yanukovych returned to Ukraine from the cloak-and-dagger Putin talks, Kiev's road to signing a key free trade deal with the European Union that would be a first step towards membership suddenly became more fraught.
The Ukrainian parliament, where the biggest force is the Regions Party of Yanukovych, on Wednesday failed to even take a vote on a bill that would allow jailed former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko go abroad for hospital treatment.
This would have removed the biggest obstacle in front of signing the Association Agreement at a summit in Vilnius on Nov. 28-29, since EU leaders have set the release of Tymoshenko as a key condition.
Whether Ukraine signs the agreement now hangs in the balance as the clock ticks down to Vilnius, with the EU giving Ukraine extra time to agree the Tymoshenko legislation when parliament meets on Tuesday next week.
The mysterious summit with Putin showed Russia's continued capacity to influence Ukraine two decades after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its reluctance to let Kiev make a historic step away from its sphere of influence.
"We don't know what happened behind the scenes in talks with Putin. But Yanukovych knows that if the agreement with the EU is not signed he will be left one-on-one with Putin," said Olexiy Haran, a professor at the Kyiv Mohyla University.
"And this is dangerous for Yanukovych."
The signing of the Association Agreement with the EU would be a painful blow to Putin's hopes of reviving links between ex-Soviet states, in particular through a Customs Union which already involves Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia but not Ukraine.
Russia has bluntly warned of economic retaliation if Ukraine signs the deal with the EU. It has already given a hint of things to come by banning imports of Roshen chocolate, a popular Ukrainian brand owned by a powerful businessman and ex-cabinet minister.
The EU parliament's envoy on Ukraine Alexander Kwasniewski, a former Polish president who shuttled to and from Kiev tirelessly in the last weeks, bluntly acknowledged how high the stakes are.
"There is no doubt that we are talking about a geopolitical struggle," he told Ukraine's UNIAN news agency.
Dmitry Trenin, director of the Carnegie Center in Moscow, said Putin in recent times had adopted a more "romantic and emotional" approach to unity with Russia's fellow Slavs in Ukraine that contrasted with his usual pragmatism.
"Ukraine's orientation is something very serious for Russia," he said.
Meanwhile, the EU's desire to integrate Ukraine was about far more than enlargement but keeping an increasingly assertive Russia at bay, he added.
"It is not so much a push for enlargement but an attempt to create a comfortable zone around the EU in the East. It is clear that Europe does not want to live next door to a Russian Empire," said Trenin.
The anti-EU campaign in Ukraine is spearheaded by former presidential chief of staff Viktor Medvedchuk, who is so close to Putin his daughter is rumored to have the Russian strongman as a godfather.
Yanukovych — once seen as a staunchly pro-Kremlin figure who has now shown more interest in EU integration — has sought to rise above the diplomatic horse-trading in Kiev.
But pro-opposition politicians and commentators doubt his sincerity in wanting to see the deal signed.
Yanukovych is keen to see the charismatic Tymoshenko, his arch political rival, kept out of the political scene and has insisted that even if she goes abroad for treatment her seven-year sentence for abuse of power should remain in place.
Pro-Tymoshenko opposition leader Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Friday that Yanukovych had to prove if his support of EU integration was real or if he "just wants to trade the country and sell it to the Russian Federation."
While economists say in the long term the agreement could unlock Ukraine's potential, retaliation from Russia could be hugely damaging as Yanukovych keeps a nervous eye on presidential elections in 2015.
The government is pinning huge hopes on new energy sources such as shale gas. But for now the Ukrainian economy is in a parlous state, enduring five consecutive quarters of negative year-on-year growth.
Earlier this month, Standard & Poor's downgraded Ukraine even deeper into junk status, warning of the "short- to medium-term negative implications" of the Russian reaction to signing the agreement.
Cash-strapped Ukraine also risks new conflicts with Russian gas giant Gazprom, a concern for Europe which suffered a break in supplies due to such a dispute in early 2009.
However the billionaire tycoons who play a far bigger role in Ukrainian politics than in Russia are reported to have been hugely irritated by Russia's brash threats of retaliation, which undermined its economic independence.
Haran said the outcome of the battle over Ukraine's future could be in doubt right up to the summit. "But delaying is very risky. Bluffing is always risky."
© AFP 2014