Ukraine -- with 50 million people, historical ties to Russia, and strategic location -- is Moscow's most important neighbor and ally. But was Russian meddling in Ukraine's presidential campaign and disputed election a blunder that could harm this relationship? Some analysts and politicians believe it was -- and they fault President Putin for making a major miscalculation.
The Kremlin's involvement in the campaign was hardly subtle. Advisers were dispatched to Kyiv to assist Prime Minister Yanukovych. Putin all but endorsed Yanukovych against his main rival, Viktor Yushchenko. He even went so far as to make strategically timed trips to Kyiv just prior to the first and second rounds of voting.
After the vote, Putin telephoned Yanukovych to congratulate him, even before Ukraine's Central Election Commission controversially declared the prime minister the winner.
But what followed was likely not part of the Kremlin plan: mass protests by Yushchenko supporters that could force a new election, Western condemnation of the electoral process, and even the prospect that Ukraine might split in two.
Independent Russia Duma Deputy Vladimir Ryzhkov said he believes Putin's meddling might have backfired on him. Ryzhkov said Putin has managed to alienate at least half of Ukraine's population while giving regional players such as Poland an opportunity replace Moscow in its traditional role.
"From my point of view, [Russia] has harmed its long-term interests," Ryzhkov said. "Because now, at least half of Ukraine considers us to be an unfriendly country. I don`t think this is the result we were aiming for. And by the way, Russia has also lost the moral right to act as an intermediary because now that that role has passed to [Polish President Aleksander] Kwasniewski. Russia can no longer be this intermediary because it hurried to congratulate one of the candidates on his 'victory.'"
Former Kremlin adviser Georgy Satarov said he agrees. In international relations, he told RFE/RL, a cardinal rule is to remain publicly impartial when it comes to foreign election campaigns. There are at least two good reasons for this. First, if the election is honest, alienating the loser is never a good idea because he might reemerge in the future.
Satarov said another reason is that if the voters think a foreign country's interference has put an election's legitimacy in doubt -- as in Ukraine -- then those voters are likely to turn against that foreign country.
"Secondly, if one assumed that the game would be played according to 'Russian rules' of holding elections -- that is to say, with the extensive use of 'administrative resources' etc., etc., -- then this was a mistake in relation to the citizens of [Ukraine]," Satarov said.
Satarov argued that Putin managed not only to alienate millions of Ukrainians but also to strain relations with both the CIS and the West. He said this can only be called a serious defeat for Russian foreign policy.
"Yes, without a doubt, because by demonstrating overt interference in the affairs of another country, this complicates relations with other CIS countries -- which value their own independence and do not appreciate any kind of outside meddling," Satarov said. "And secondly, by behaving in a way that does not correspond to contemporary international standards, this elicits suspicion in the West."
So where does this leave the Kremlin? Right now, there are few attractive options. Russian opposition politician Grigorii Yavlinskii told RFE/RL that the Kremlin is reaping the bitter fruits of its "divide and conquer" tactics in the election campaign that might risk splitting Ukraine in two.
"The so-called Russian 'political technologists' took part in this and at the highest political levels in Russia a policy of provocation was followed in Ukraine," Yavlinskii said. "This amounted to direct interference in Ukrainian affairs. The provocation consisted of creating a false choice between East and West in Ukraine; it consisted of threatening and frightening [voters]; it consisted of pitting Eastern and Western Ukraine against each other and demonstrating that Russia is on the side of only one part of Ukraine."
The "political technologists" -- Russian slang for political strategists -- seem keenly aware of the Kremlin's predicament and appear to have started a campaign to distance themselves from the crisis.
In an interview published today in "The Moscow Times," Russian campaign strategist Sergei Markov blamed Yanukovych's criminal convictions as a young man and poor speaking skills for the debacle.
In an ironic twist, he also blamed Ukrainian government advisers for interfering in the campaign and not giving the Russian "spin doctors" a completely free hand -- a statement that is unlikely to endear Moscow with anyone in Kyiv, on either side of the barricades.
With the Kremlin now at odds with its own strategists, Russia is searching for a way out of a crisis that some believe is at least partly of its own making.
(RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report.)
More on Russian-Ukrainian relations during the current crisis:
"Russia Says Ties With West Being Tested"
"Ukraine: Russia Warns Europe Over Crisis As Envoys Arrive In Kyiv"
"EU, Russia Clash Over Response To Ukraine Crisis"
[Click here for all RFE/RL's recent coverage and analysis of Ukraine's disputed presidential election.]