Kiev's Russian Roulette

After deposing a despised President, Ukrainians are watching another powerful leader: the one in the Kremlin

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Yuri Kozyrev / NOOR for TIME

The cast of characters competing to decide Ukraine's future could come from a fairy tale, or maybe an operetta: the blond, braided beauty freed from prison by people power; the heavyweight boxing champion turned protest leader; the thuggish President, now ousted, whose hidden estate included a personal menagerie of ostriches and peacocks; the billionaire confectionery mogul, known as the "chocolate king," who cast his lot with the revolution; the Baptist pastor who had the reins of power pressed, temporarily, into his hands. The protesters themselves range from starry-eyed young idealists wielding modern instruments of dissent, like cell-phone cameras and Twitter accounts, to radical thugs brandishing older implements, like hunting rifles and Molotov cocktails.

But waiting in the wings is perhaps the most important character of all, the man who could decide where the story goes next: Vladimir Putin.

It is tempting to imagine Russia's President as wounded by the ouster of his Ukrainian ally, Viktor Yanukovych. The protesters in Kiev's Independence Square didn't simply remove a corrupt leader. They explicitly rejected the political values Putin has championed on his side of the border in favor of a West European democratic model. This allows his critics, at home and abroad, to hold out hope for a similar uprising in Moscow, where political dissent, symbolized by the punk rockers of Pussy Riot, churns under the surface of state-enforced calm. "If I were Vladimir Putin ... I'd be a little nervous," U.S. Republican Senator John McCain said on CBS's Face the Nation. "Because the people of Russia have watched this transpire, and they're tired of the crony capitalism and kleptocracy that governs Russia today."

On Feb. 24, the day after the triumphant closing ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, several hundred protesters gathered outside a central Moscow courthouse to demonstrate against the sentencing of eight anti-Putin activists; police arrested more than 400 people, a large number by Russian standards. It wasn't enough to give Putin pause: the same day, his government re-arrested the Pussy Riot members it had released just before the Sochi Games. But even small eruptions of dissent at home must trouble a leader whose dream of establishing a Soviet-lite Eurasian Union--a loose confederation Putin hoped would rival the European Union, creating more formal economic ties between regional allies including Russia, Belarus, Armenia and Kazakhstan--has just suffered an embarrassing blow.

Putin's loss in Ukraine could be Barack Obama's gain. The U.S. President once sought to "reset" relations with Russia but more recently has found Putin a strategic rival on international issues like Syria and Iran as well as a personal antagonist who has critiqued Obama's policies and harbored the former NSA contractor and whistle-blower Edward Snowden. "This is an opportunity for the President to really be unequivocal with Putin," U.S. Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte told Fox News. "It's time to reset the reset."

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