Ukraine, a nation deeply divided between pro-Western and Russified parts that is currently sliding into a renewed political crisis, could face intense Russian pressure if it presses on with its bid for NATO membership. "In many Western countries there are already protests against this crazy idea of getting Georgia and Ukraine into NATO," says Mr. Klimov. "It's a formula for crisis inside NATO."
Narochnitskaya, like many other Russian experts, insists that Moscow probably wouldn't attempt to break up or annex Ukraine if it declared neutrality and became a kind of buffer state between East and West, akin to Finland's unique status during the cold war. They insist that Moscow's objection is to Ukraine joining a military alliance, and not to its economic or political cooperation with the West in general. "The majority of Ukrainians identify themselves as an independent Slavic nation," Narochnitskaya says. "But they don't need to build their national identity on hostility to Russia."
Moscow has been putting out feelers to former Soviet allies, such as Syria and Cuba, as well as emerging partners like Venezuela. A Russian delegation led by Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited Havana in early July to explore rebuilding Soviet-era economic and security ties. Medvedev discussed sophisticated arms sales and the possibility of the Russian Navy using former Soviet port facilities at Tartus, on the Mediterranean, when Syrian President Bashar al-Assad visited Moscow in late August. The Russian Foreign Ministry expressed "deep satisfaction" last week when another old Soviet crony, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, became the first foreign leader to extend diplomatic recognition to South Ossetia and the other breakaway Georgian territory, Abkhazia.