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Putin To World: Hands Off Ukraine!

President Vladimir Putin drinks tea at a party after an awarding ceremony to mark International Women's Day at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Monday, March 8, 2004.
AP
Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday warned that Ukraine's crisis over last week's disputed presidential election must be solved without foreign pressure, even as European envoys returned to Kiev for a second round of mediation.

Russia's Vladimir Putin has openly backed Yanukovych — and warned other nations not to interfere.

While it was delivered in a phone call with the German chancellor, Putin's message appeared aimed more at the United States, seen by the Kremlin as behind a campaign to install Ukraine's pro-Western opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko at the helm of the nation Russia has always regarded as its main satellite.

But President Bush paid no heed: He urged a return to negotiations to settle the impasse over Ukraine's disputed election Tuesday and asked all sides to resolve the situation without violence.

"It's very important that violence not break out there," Bush said in Canada during a joint news conference with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin. "And it's important the will of the people be heard."

Ukraine, the former Soviet republic of 48 million, has emerged at the center of arguably the biggest direct geopolitical confrontation between Moscow and the United States and its Western allies since the late 1980s, when Eastern Europe was still firmly in the embrace of the Communist empire but struggling to break out.

"Putin is being told by his advisers and allies that for a long time, the West has been actively interfering in Ukraine and Yushchenko as a politician is a purely American project," said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of a leading Russian foreign affairs journal. "He's told that the whole campaign is being run on ... mostly American, money, and if Yushchenko wins Ukraine will sharply change its political orientation — quickly joining NATO, trying to rupture its ties with Russia and so on."

The United States and other Western nations have agreed with Yushchenko that the Nov. 21 runoff vote was marred by massive fraud.

Tuesday, Yushchenko raised pressure on his government foes, by rejecting an offer of the prime minister's job from the declared winner of Ukraine's disputed election, and his allies withdrew from compromise talks.

Both sides in the struggle anxiously awaited a Supreme Court verdict on Yushchenko's appeal of the vote results that gave Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych the win in the Nov. 21 presidential runoff, but the court adjourned for the night without a decision.

Hundreds of thousands who support Yushchenko's claim of rampant fraud kept up the massive street protests they have maintained since the election, jamming Kiev's central square, filling a giant tent camp on the main avenue and laying siege to official buildings.

CBS News correspondent Sheila MacVicar reports that the affect of the political turmoil is becoming widespread. For instance, banks are on the verge of closing, and many Ukrainians are rusing to withdraw their funds.

The dispute also sparked a struggle at Ukraine's parliament, with throngs of opposition supporters trying to storm inside after lawmakers tentatively approved a resolution that would cancel Saturday's nonbinding decision to declare the election results invalid. Protesters — some crawling on each other's shoulders — got as far as the lobby before police pushed them back.

While the opposition wants the court to make Yushchenko the winner, outgoing President Leonid Kuchma has proposed a new election and Yanukovych said he and Yushchenko should both bow out if a new vote is held. "If this election brings a split in the country ... I'm ready to drop my bid along with him," Yanukovych said.

Yushchenko ignored the proposal, which appeared to be a government effort to cut him out of the picture under the guise of a compromise. Yushchenko has led the opposition for years and was long seen as its candidate in the election, while Kuchma anointed Yanukovych as his favored successor just last spring, hoping his prominence as prime minister would attract votes.

Yushchenko also rebuffed the offer of the prime minister's post under a Yanukovych presidency, saying it fell far short of a solution to Ukraine's crisis.

"The election was rigged," he said. "People are asking whether this country has a political elite capable of upholding a fair vote."