Priests walk between riot police and anti-government protesters at the site of recent clashes in Kiev February 12, 2014. (REUTERS/Konstantin Chernichkin)
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After Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Ukraine last July, U.S. diplomats got a private recap of the message he delivered behind closed doors to the country's leaders. Ukraine, Putin warned, would not be allowed to stray from Moscow's orbit. Putin's blunt talk was an unexpected sign of how hard Moscow would fight Western influence on Ukraine, U.S. officials say, prompting Washington and European capitals to step up their engagement with Ukrainian government and opposition forces. U.S.-Russia tensions and mutual accusations of meddling are making it more difficult to find a solution in Ukraine, where the U.S. fears violence may escalate, and is one of the clearest signs yet that U.S. President Barack Obama has made scant progress improving relations with Washington's former adversary.In Ukraine, former U.S. officials and analysts say, Russia holds most of the cards, including close proximity, energy supplies that Kiev depends on and a promised $15 billion bailout it has used to woo Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich away from an EU trade deal. Putin sees Ukraine as crucial to his dream of a Eurasian customs union to rival the EU and the United States.
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