Analysis: Russia's shadow boxing over Ukraine

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych leaves after his news conference in Rostov-on-Don, Russia, 28 February Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Viktor Yanukovych re-emerged on Friday, giving a news conference in Russia

Tensions have escalated between Russia and Ukraine, in the wake of the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Ukraine has even accused Russia naval forces of carrying out an "armed invasion" at a Crimean airport. The BBC's Bridget Kendall looks at how the unfolding crisis is being seen in Moscow.

Officially the Russian defence and foreign ministry have no comment on the accusation coming from Kiev that this, in some way, is being driven by Moscow.

Vladimir Putin's spokesman said that when the president was having a meeting with parliamentarians, it was not at the top of his agenda.

The picture being presented from Moscow is that events in Crimea are spontaneous - the natural response of local Russian-speakers who felt threatened by the new government in Kiev.

"And why not?" argues Moscow. After all, using people-power and self-styled militias to challenge the status quo was exactly what the opposition in Kiev did.

How far the Kremlin is pulling the strings behind the scenes is hard to know.

Certainly it is not being admitted openly, but there are signs the Russian government is hardening its stance.

Mr Yanukovych has been given sanctuary, allowed to declare he is the rightful president and the new Kiev government the result of an illegitimate coup by extremists.

These assessments are now being echoed by senior Russian parliamentarians close to the Kremlin.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Armed men apparently seized Crimea's Simferopol airport on Friday morning

It is interesting that Viktor Yanukovych has made it clear he does not think Crimea should secede from Ukraine.

We have not heard that officially from Russian official sources either. They talk about the need for more autonomy, more self-rule in Crimea, but no-one is talking about breaking away from Ukraine.

That is possibly because the Russian authorities are treading a tightrope between challenging the authorities in Kiev and trying to keep good relations with the West.

They know the whole issue of secession would lead to a real confrontation, politically and diplomatically.

The question for President Putin is how far he can push it without risking a full-scale confrontation.

Maybe he thinks he can have it both ways - encourage more Crimean autonomy but stop short of secession; criticise the new Kiev government but avoid a full break in relations; and try to unnerve Ukraine's young government by heavy-handed manoeuvres on the border without actually invading.

That way, on the phone to Western capitals, he can continue to reassure everyone that Russia's intentions are entirely peaceful.

But it is a dangerous game. For now it may be mostly shadow boxing, but if tensions escalate further, a full-scale crisis between East and West may be impossible to avoid.