For a while last weekend, Ukrainians misplaced their president.
Viktor Yanukovich's official site said on Nov. 9 that the Ukrainian leader would briefly visit Russia for talks with his counterpart, Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin's site, for its part, made no mention of the meeting, though it faithfully records Putin's every official move. No one reported Yanukovich's arrival in Moscow or, indeed, any other Russian city.
Dmitri Kiselyov of Russian state television, widely seen as a top figure in Putin's propaganda machine, said Sunday night that the Ukrainian president hadn't been to Russia. "He did not show up in Moscow though he's said goodbye to Kiev," Kiselyov said. "Where is Yanukovich? ... It is surprising that no one is looking for him in Kiev. Nor in Moscow, though that is normal."
Kiselyov was wrong. Ukrainian journalists were, in fact, looking for Yanukovich. Mustafa Nayyem, a star political reporter writing for Ukrainskaya Pravda, even sent an official request to the presidential press service asking whether the meeting with Putin had taken place. No answer was forthcoming. The only news item that appeared on the presidential site on Sunday dealt with Yanukovich's greetings to a Ukrainian car-racing team that had just won a trophy.
On Monday morning, the question "Where is Yanukovich" was all over Ukrainian news sites. The answer came from Russia a few hours later: Putin's press secretary, Dmitri Peskov, said that Yanukovich had met with Putin on Nov. 9 to discuss "trade relations."
The substance of the discussion was secret, as it was at another recent meeting between the two leaders, which took place in Sochi, Russia, late last month.
Putin and Yanukovich seem to have a lot to talk about in private in the weeks before the Nov. 28 European Union Eastern Partnership summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, where Ukraine is expected to sign an association pact with the EU. Moscow has been doing its best to prevent the deal: Putin sees Ukraine as part of his pet project, a Eurasian customs union that now includes Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Without Ukraine, the project is doomed: Russia would have to be content with picking up smaller nations like Armenia, which the Kremlin managed to dissuade from signing a trade deal with the EU.
Most Ukrainians want the country to take the European path. According to a recent poll, 53 percent of them support the association agreement while 35 percent are against it. Yanukovich has acted in line with popular sentiment so far, but signing the deal is no easy decision.
Apart from Russian threats to create problems for Ukrainian imports in retaliation, European leaders are demanding the release from prison of Yanukovich's top political rival, former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The European Parliament recently sent two envoys, Irish politician Pat Cox and former Polish President Alexander Kwasnievski, to Kiev to negotiate Tymoshenko's release for medical treatment in Germany. They got nowhere: She remains in jail. Today, Ukrainian opposition leader Arseni Yatsenyuk said Tymoshenko's lawyer and ally, Sergei Vlasenko, had been arrested.
Then there is the 2015 presidential election. The EU pact weakens Yanukovich's re-election prospects because free trade with Europe and probable Russian sanctions will hurt the country's industrial East, the president's base of support. On the other hand, backing away from EU integration could end in a popular revolt similar to the one that prevented Yanukovich from coming to power in 2004.
The fraught situation is complicated by Ukraine's financial strains. Its foreign exchange reserves now stand at about 2.7 months of imports. In the third quarter, the country's economy declined 1.5 percent from a year earlier. Ukraine has been unable to secure $15 billion in International Monetary Fund bailout money because it refuses to lift subsidies on natural gas prices for consumers. In fact, Ukraine has been unable to pay Russia for gas imports since August, and purchases have now stopped.
So does Yanukovich fly to Russia to secure Putin's help at the cost of the EU deal, which is threatening to fall through anyway because of the Tymoshenko issue? Or is he counting on Putin suddenly to relent and let Ukraine forge its link with Europe in peace?
"This is not politics," wrote Ukrainian political columnist Vitaly Portnikov. "These are attempts by a feudal lord, the owner of vast territories and empty coffers, to feel like an undisputed ruler without quarreling with real rulers who have more money and plenty of information about the feudal lord and his vassals. What we see as political vacillation is in fact an attempt to understand where he can get more and where they know less."
Yanukovich's secret and seemingly inconclusive talks with Putin are an indication that Portnikov may be right. The Ukrainian president is just fishing, hoping for some favorable opportunity to present itself as time ticks away.
(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)