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Putin shaping up to be the playground bully in drama

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Russian President Vladimir Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin

David Goldman-Pool/Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin

It is almost enough to make you feel sorry for Vladimir Putin. No sooner had he witnessed his country's triumphant performance at the Winter Olympics, where Russia topped the medal table, than he learnt of the collapse of Ukraine's pro-Moscow regime and its replacement by pro-EU political activists.

Apart from demonstrating its sporting prowess, Russia's staggering $51bn (€37bn) investment in Sochi was intended to boost its image as a modern, vibrant country, equal to any in the world.

Yet for Mr Putin, the high drama of Ukraine's second Orange Revolution threatens to overshadow all of that. Rather than embracing the new face of Russia, we now find ourselves having to contend with a more familiar guise: the playground bully who cannot tolerate anyone who declines to do his bidding.

By Russian standards, the threats emanating from Moscow after its Ukrainian protege, Viktor Yanukovych, was sent scurrying from the world stage have been relatively moderate.

The prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, questioned whether what the Kremlin now regards as a Western-inspired coup poses a threat to Russian interests, and in particular to Ukraine's ethnic Russians.

Such a concern was, of course, the main pretext the Kremlin advanced to justify its 2008 military offensive against Georgia, when its troops occupied the separatist regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

There still remains the possibility that Mr Putin will take similar action against parts of Ukraine with a high density of Russian inhabitants.

Yet as Mr Putin weighs his options, he will find his room for manoeuvre far more circumscribed than it was six years ago when he orchestrated the Georgia offensive.

For a start, the Russian economy is no longer the powerhouse it was a few years ago.

In 2009, the last time Moscow squared up to Kiev, it simply ordered Gazprom, the state-owned supplier of natural gas, to turn off the taps.

But Gazprom, like the rest of the Russian economy, is far weaker than it was.

Nor, for all the Kremlin's sabre rattling, does Russia's once-vaunted military pose much of a threat.

A case in point is the country's sole aircraft carrier, the 65,000-ton Admiral Kuznetsov, a Soviet-era rust bucket that can make the occasional forays to Russia's naval base at the Syrian port of Tartus, but would be no match for its more powerful US counterparts. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent