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In fact, the institutions of power were already showing cracks. Olexandr Skibinetsky, a general in Ukraine's Security Service, told demonstrators that he shared their "well-founded doubts" about the election. Lieut. General Mikhail Kutsin, the military commander for western Ukraine, said his men would not "act against their own people." In other parts of the country, cities and towns created strike committees and announced campaigns of civil disobedience.
As the tumult in the streets escalated, Yanukovych seemed at a loss. At first, he tried to pretend nothing was wrong. Then he disappeared from public view until last Friday, when he told a crowd of 6,000 miners and metalworkers who had been transported by bus and train to Kiev's central station from the east: "I'll give it to you straight. A creeping coup is taking place. We must do everything possible to prevent this coup from happening." After Parliament called for a fresh vote, many felt that the coup had succeeded. "This is banditry," said Irina, 39, a waitress in a Kiev cafe. "I voted for Yanukovych. He was legally elected. They should have let him start working. I'm scared to think what will become of us now."
However the disputed election finally plays out, it has undermined the Bush Administration's cozy relations with Putin, at least behind the scenes. In his first term, George W. Bush was willing to give Putin a free hand in what Russia calls the near abroad, the states that spun off from the broken Soviet Union. At the same time, Bush has made encouraging democracy around the world a central pillar of his presidency. In Ukraine those two policies clash mightily. Washington spent much of Ukraine's bitterly fought presidential campaign studiously avoiding confrontation with Putin and stuck to that line in the early days after the vote. But at midweek, Secretary of State Colin Powell made clear Washington's support for Yushchenko, saying the U.S. was "deeply disturbed by the extensive and credible reports of fraud." The next day, at an European Union-- Russia summit, Putin emphasized that the dispute should be settled without outside interference. No other country has a "moral right to push a major European state to mass disorder," he warned.
The Kremlin regards countries like Ukraine, Moldova and Belarus as vital buffers between Russia and the West. Like Russian rulers for the past two centuries, Putin "equates security with well-defined zones of interest," says James Sherr, an Eastern Europe specialist at Oxford Uni-versity. Those zones have shrunk in recent years as the Baltic states and Georgia turned sharply toward the West. Putin doesn't want to see the same thing happen in Ukraine.