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Return of the evil empire and a nation on the brink of civil war: America and Europe look on in fear as violence grips Ukraine
PUBLISHED: 18:47 EST, 19 February 2014 | UPDATED: 19:32 EST, 19 February 2014
At least 27 people are dead — one of them was decapitated — and hundreds are injured. One man was shot through the eye as police snipers apparently targeted the heads and chests of protesters from city rooftops.
On the ground, heavily armed riot police brandished Kalashnikovs and launched stun grenades against pro-democracy demonstrators who had taken up arms, anything from bricks and bottles to pistols and shotguns.
And all the time, flames soared into the sky from the city's central square.
What has been happening in Kiev, capital of Ukraine, before the truce late last night could not be further removed from the harmonious atmosphere of the Winter Olympics at Sochi — the most expensive Games in history — in which Russia's President Putin is basking.
The ethnic tensions that threaten to tear Ukraine apart
Carnage: Independence Square during on-going anti-government protests in downtown Kiev. It has been reported that an uneasy truce has finally been reached
Smoke rises above Independence Square during anti-government protests in central Kiev in the early hours of yesterday morning
Yet both events have been masterminded by the sinister former KGB officer who is intent on re-establishing the 'glory' of the Soviet empire in all but name.
The Games, for which the total bill is expected to reach £31 billion, Putin sees as a gigantic showpiece for his repressive regime, a shameless and extraordinarily expensive publicity stunt to burnish his country's international reputation.
The violence in Kiev, on the other hand, reflected the brutal reality of Putin's attempt to build up his new empire by effectively forcing Ukraine to join it against the wishes of millions of its people.
This, after all, is the man who described the end of the Soviet Union as the 'greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century'.
But as the flames and smoke billowed from the square, as Europe and America looked on with apprehension and involved themselves in drastic behind-the-scenes diplomacy, the stakes could not have been higher.
Ukraine is historically a deeply divided country — pro-Russian in the east and pro-Europe in the west. And despite the truce, there are fears it could still drift into a bloody civil war as the protesters continue to voice their support for their charismatic leader, former international boxer Vitali Klitschko.
Ring of steel: Police form a barrier in Independence Square. After weeks of calm, violence once again flared between anti-government protesters and police
Pitched battle: Berkut riot police throw stones at anti-government protesters, who threw rocks in retaliation
Open fire: Police fired rubber bullets at the assembled mass of protestors
The disturbances started last November when the country's pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich abruptly spurned what seemed an almost done trade deal with the EU, which would have given the country far closer ties with Europe and might eventually have paved the way towards EU membership.
The deal would have given Ukraine access to Western Europe's vast market of more than 500 million people and helped modernise what is a relatively backward and predominantly agricultural country.
Huge numbers of Ukrainians welcomed the idea. Those in the west of the country, many of whose families had historically been under Polish, Austro-Hungarian or German rule, were desperate to take advantage of the chances offered by the European Union.
They had seen, for example, how Poland had prospered in the lead-up to joining the EU in 2004.
Back in 1990, the two countries had the same GDP per capita of population. Today, Poland's GDP is three times greater than Ukraine's. But if Ukraine allied itself to Western Europe, Putin's idea of a revived Soviet empire would be in tatters, given the country's importance to that empire.
So he leaned on his stooge of a president, Viktor Yanukovich, whose dynasty is notoriously corrupt and whose power base is in the east of the country, which is pro-Russian.
A man who was injured during clashes between anti-government protesters and riot police receives medical treatment inside St Michael's Cathedral) in Kiev
People sleep inside St Michael's Cathedral, which serves as a temporary shelter and a first-aid post for anti-government protesters
Bloodied, yet undbowed: A wounded anti-government protester is evacuated during the violence
Putin used offers of cash to make Yanukovich change his mind about signing up to the plan — along with bullying and blackmail.
Ukrainians who were used to driving into Russia without hassle, for example, found their cars were subject to draconian customs checks.
The world-renowned Ukrainian chocolate manufacturer Roshen, whose boss supported the deal with the EU, found that its products, all carefully tailored to Russian tastes, were no longer allowed into Russia ahead of national celebrations.
The Russian natural gas giant Gazprom, which provides Ukraine with 35 per cent of its gas, demanded advance payment for supplies, threatening to cut them off if these payments were not met.
After this Putin switched to bribes. Suddenly, he offered to slash the price Ukraine pays for natural gas and to buy £9.2 billion of Ukrainian government bonds, effectively giving Kiev a massive and ludicrously cheap loan.
The offer was, of course, subject to Ukraine's president rejecting any advances from the EU.
So why is Putin so obsessed by Ukraine?
Like many Russians, Putin sees this divided nation as integral to Russia's history. Many say it was, in fact, the first true state of Russia, created in the ninth century.
A protestor wielding a club crouches next to a blaze. The death toll has risen to 27
Molotov cocktails stand ready as protesters prepare their camp for another onslaught
Russian leader Vladimir Putin strongly denied accusations he was acting as Yanukovych's puppet master
Gates of fire: Protesters stand behind burning barricades in Kiev's Independence Square
Furthermore, 17 per cent of its 45 million people are ethnic Russians. Many are descendants of workers Stalin planted in the industrial east, to counter western Ukrainian nationalists who loathed the Soviet empire.
In World War II, for example, these nationalists had welcomed the Nazis as armed 'liberators' who rescued them from a Soviet tyranny that had killed seven million people in the terror famine of the early Thirties. Ukrainians call this act of genocide the Holomodor, likening it to the Nazi Holocaust.
Some of the spiritual heirs of those nationalists who sided with the Nazis in the war are active among the pro-democracy demonstrators.
Most are from the Far Right, as Putin is quick to point out, and many are aggressive and armed with rifles and other weapons.
In the street battles this week they showed they are determined at any cost to prevent the return of anything that resembles the Soviet tyranny.
Putin, meanwhile, is equally determined to effectively annex Ukraine and enlist it as a member of a new trading block centred on Russia, called the Eurasian Union.
Violent confrontation: Protesters positioned amongst burning debris throw cobblestones as they clash with the police
Massed ranks: Ukrainian riot police stand in front of a ring of fire around Independence Square
Makeshift: A protester makes a barbed wire entanglement in front of a fire at Independence Square
So far the only countries that have signed up to this union are two nasty dictatorships, Belarus and Kazakhstan. That is why he is so keen on forcing Ukraine to join.
Not only is it a vast country, stretching from Russia to Poland with a population of nearly 45 million.
It is also essential to Putin's plans to massively boost the Russian defence budget in coming years, to 20 per cent of federal government spending by 2020 (against just 3 per cent on health or education).
To achieve that, he needs to reassemble the old Soviet-scale defence sector, and Ukraine's heavy engineering capacity and naval dockyards.
Mr Putin believes that what has been happening in central Kiev 23 years after the dismantling of the Iron Curtain presents a threat to his dreams of a Russian revival.
A pro-EU Ukrainian opposition rebel with a gun takes an aim in the the seized regional Interior Ministry department in the west-Ukrainian city of Lviv early on Wednesday
Take-over: Anti-government protesters clash with the authorities as they storm the main Police City Office in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv
He still cannot shake off his paranoid Cold War thinking that Western powers are deliberately provoking discontent, and all street protest must be crushed.
Putin has stated that the U.S. and EU had been encouraging and even coaching the Ukrainian opposition for this turbulent moment.
For proof of U.S. involvement, Russian intelligence agents have publicised a robust mobile phone conversation they intercepted between U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland and her ambassador in Kiev discussing Ukraine's opposition politicians as potential leaders.
Whatever happens following the truce, we should be clear this is part of a vast geopolitical power-play between the U.S. and EU and a Russian leader who will stop at nothing to keep Ukraine under his control.
Those 27 deaths are terrible. But given the combination of Putin's obduracy, a feeble stooge of a Ukrainian president, and the deep divisions in the country, they could yet be the start of something far more calamitous.
Injured: Anti-government protesters left covered in blood after clashing with police
Terrified: An anti-government protester is engulfed in flames while running from the scene in Kiev's Independence Square