MOSCOW – Ukraine’s fugitive president may be enjoying VIP treatment under Moscow’s protection, said to have been spotted at an opulent five-star hotel and a Kremlin country retreat. But beneath the surface, the embrace has been chilly: State-run TV has portrayed him as a coward who betrayed those who stood by him.
The conflicting messages indicate that while Russia still considers him the legitimate president of Ukraine, it is far from happy with his handling of Ukraine’s crisis.
Yanukovych made his appeal for protection in a written statement released simultaneously by two Russian state news agencies: “I have to ask Russia to ensure my personal safety from extremists,” he wrote. Shortly afterward, the same agencies quoted an unidentified government official as saying that the request had been “satisfied on the territory of Russia.” The ITAR-Tass and RIA Novosti news agencies often are used by the government to issue official statements.
With President Vladimir Putin largely silent, the Kremlin’s tone on Ukraine has been set by Russian state television, which has denigrated the Ukrainian leader for failing to stand up to the protesters and taking flight, betraying those who stood by him.
Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center said the descriptions of Yanukovych in state media leave little doubt how he’s seen by Moscow.
“I think he simply failed in expectations that had been placed on him at the time that Putin was giving him large amounts of financial support, of which $3 billion are in danger of being never returned to Russia,” Trenin said in a conference call with journalists.
“The relationship between Putin and Yanukovych is well-known to have been a very bad one, with the Russian leader not having much respect for his Ukrainian counterpart,” the political scholar said. “So I think that they will give him protection, but he is not going to be an active element in any Russian strategy vis-a-vis Ukraine in the near future.”
Since he was driven out of Ukraine’s capital nearly a week ago after three months of protests, Yanukovych had been on the run.
His last public appearance was Saturday in the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, where he declared in a video address that he was still president and would not leave the country.
The opposition leaders who suddenly found themselves in charge of the country, however, said Yanukovych then promptly tried to fly out from Donetsk, also in eastern Ukraine, but was stopped by the border service. He then showed up on the Crimean Peninsula, where Russia has a naval base, according to the acting interior minister, who said Yanukovych and his remaining loyal guards were last seen driving away in three cars early Monday.
Yanukovych arrived in Moscow early Tuesday and checked into the Hotel Ukraina, according to the reliable RBK business daily, which said the information initially came from one of Russia’s wealthy businessmen and was confirmed by a government official.
By Wednesday, Yanukovych had moved to the Barvikha Sanitorium, a well-guarded compound just outside the city with a hotel, cottages and medical centre run by the presidential administration’s property department, the report said. The spokesman for this department, Viktor Khrekov, told The Associated Press that he had no information about this.
RBK, however, cited an unidentified official in the presidential administration as saying that he had seen Yanukovych at Barvikha and he looked haggard and had lost weight. The report, written under the bylines of respected journalists with high-level contacts in business and government circles, could not immediately be confirmed.
A security guard turned away two AP journalists on Thursday as they approached the entrance to Barvikha. The gated compound was built in Soviet times as a place where ailing government officials could rest and receive medical care. Yeltsin, Russia’s first post-Soviet president, stayed there often as his health declined.
At the Hotel Ukraina, security was unusually heavy late Wednesday, with police watching from parked vehicles outside. Security guards posted at the door and throughout the opulent lobby tracked visitors and guests.
RBK, citing the presidential administration official, said Ukraine’s former prosecutor general, Viktor Pshonka, was still at the hotel and had checked into the presidential suite. On the hotel’s website, the suite is described as meeting “the highest standards for security” and lists for about 340,000 rubles ($9,700) per night.
If he needs a new car, the hotel has a Rolls-Royce dealership on the ground floor.
Ukraine’s acting government has warrants out for the arrests of Yankovych and Pshonka in the shooting deaths of dozens of protesters in Kyiv last week.
Anatoly Kucherena, a Kremlin-connected lawyer, said Yanukovych’s life was in danger in Ukraine and that Russia had no choice but to grant his request for protection, but it did not necessarily mean that he still had the Kremlin’s support.
Kucherena, who spoke to the Interfax news agency, also represents Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency systems analyst evading U.S. espionage charges who has sought asylum in Russia, and often comments on legal issues. He has no known connection to Yanukovych.
In his statement asking for protection, Yanukovych said he still considers himself the president of Ukraine.
His future plans may become clearer Friday, when news agencies reported that he will give a press conference in Rostov-on-Don, a city in southern Russia about 1,000 kilometres (600 miles) from Moscow.