Russia Gives Ukraine Financial Lifeline Amid Protests

As former Soviet state moves away from the E.U.

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Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters

Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych winks to his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin during a signing ceremony at the Kremlin in Moscow on Dec. 17, 2013

Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday that his country would offer much needed economic stimulus to Ukraine, inflaming concerns among Ukrainian protesters that their country is falling deeper into the Russian sphere of influence.

Putin said the countries agreed that Moscow would buy $15 billion of Ukrainian government bonds, the Associated Press reports. Russia will also sharply reduce — by 33% — the price of natural-gas exports to the country, providing a lifeline to the government of President Viktor Yanukovych.

But the deal threatens to enrage protesters who have been in the streets since last month, when Yanukovych pulled out of talks with the E.U. in favor of strengthening ties with neighboring Russia. The upheaval in Ukraine — reminiscent of the Orange Revolution nearly a decade ago — has pitched pro-E.U. factions against Yanukovych, whom they accuse of sticking to Soviet-era corruption practices and looking out only for his own political well-being.

“If there’s any impact from having struck this deal, it’s hardening both sides’ positions,” Matthew Rojansky, an expert on U.S. relations with former Soviet Union states at the Wilson Center, tells TIME. “Yanukovych now no longer has the urgent need to strike a compromise with Brussels or the United States or indeed with the protesters, and the protesters are increasingly feeling that they’re being sold out and marginalized, and that just infuriates them more.”

Putin went out of his way on Tuesday to note that the bilateral talks did not include discussion of Ukraine’s accession to the regional Customs Union, Russia’s counterpart to the E.U. that, if Ukraine were to join, would draw the country much deeper into the Russian sphere, the AP reports. But Rojansky said the significant commitment from Russia may mean it expects greater cooperation with Ukraine through other channels, including economic integration and political and military cooperation.

Vitali Klitschko, the former boxing champion and opposition leader eyeing a presidential campaign, said Yanukovych had “given up Ukraine’s national interests, given up independence and prospects for a better life for every Ukrainian,” Reuters reports.

The agreements could embolden protesters skeptical of any type of deal with Russia to remain in the streets, where some have set up camp for weeks. Meanwhile, the Russian assistance gives Yanukovych breathing room to turn down conditional funds from the E.U. and limit concessions to the protesters.

“Yanukovych’s bargaining position is much, much stronger now,” Rojansky says. “At least for the core of the demonstrators, it comes either to a forcible confrontation with the authorities, if the authorities choose to go that route, or a pretty long and drawn-out political siege.”