(Reuters) - For more than two weeks while Russia hosted the Winter Olympics, President Vladimir Putin did his best to show the world that he and his country have a soft side.
Now the Sochi Games are over, Western governments are concerned the smile will disappear and the gloves come off in Russia’s tug-of-war with Europe over the fate of Ukraine.
The circus artists, dancers and flag bearers hardly had time to leave the stadium after the closing ceremony in Sochi before Russia announced it had recalled its ambassador from Ukraine for consultations in Moscow.
Russian state television could not even wait for the end of the Games to launch a scathing attack on the ousted Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovich.
Accusing him of betrayal, presenter Dmitry Kiselyov said: “The consequences are irreversible. Ukraine is one step from a split and probably already beyond the threshold of civil war.”
The president has not spoken in public about the fall of Yanukovich, but Kiselyov is a Putin loyalist who has the president’s trust. He will soon take over a media organization intended to polish Russia’s image.
Western leaders are concerned Russia may be so worried about
losing influence in Ukraine, the cradle of Russian civilization, that it could use force to prevent the vast country to its west forging closer ties with the European Union.
President Barack Obama’s national security adviser, Susan Rice, said it would be a “grave mistake” if Russia sent troops to Ukraine - although the Kremlin has not suggested it would.
Britain’s foreign minister, William Hague, warned against what he called external duress or Russian intervention and said: “There are many dangers and uncertainties.”
Putin spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel by phone and Berlin quoted him as saying he wanted Ukraine to stay together, despite media speculation that Russia might want to take control of Russian-speaking regions in the east of the country.
But he said nothing in public about the bloody drama in Ukraine, which he wants to lure into a planned trading bloc to challenge the economic might of China and the United States.
Moldova and Georgia are watching closely. Like Ukraine, the two former Soviet republics want to deepen ties with the European Union but also risk upsetting Moscow.
Georgia is particularly wary because it fought a five-day war with Russia over two breakaway Georgian regions in 2008.
The Olympics proved a welcome diversion for Putin. Russia topped the medals table, fears of an attack by Islamist militants fighting Russian forces in the Caucasus mountains proved unfounded and the sports facilities were widely praised.
Putin dropped in on some of the national teams, sipped wine with American team officials and at one point allowed himself to be photographed with a Games volunteer on the ski slopes.
“The friendly faces, the warm Sochi sun and the glare of the Olympic gold have broken the ice of skepticism towards the new Russia,” said Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak.
“The Games have turned our country, its culture and the people into something that is a lot closer and more appealing and understandable for the rest of the world.”
The jury may be out on that. During the Games, protests were limited to a small, scruffy park far from any Olympic venues and had to be arranged with city authorities in advance.
A court upheld a three-year prison sentence against a local environmental activist accused of damaging a regional leader’s property but best known for his campaigning against ecological damage he says was caused by Olympic construction work.
At what they called a “show trial”, eight protesters were convicted in Moscow on Friday of rioting and violence against police at a 2012 protest against Putin. Their sentences were due to be handed down on Monday, the day after the Games ended.
“Will the Kremlin draw any lessons from the Maidan (protests in Kiev)?” opposition leader Boris Nemtsov asked in a blog. “Will they give citizens back their freedom and give up their never-ending rule? I doubt it very much.”
Moves before the Games such as freeing former oil executive Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who was Russia’s most famous prisoner, and an amnesty under which two members of the Pussy Riot protest group were released from prison are dismissed by Putin’s opponents as cosmetic and intended merely to appease the West.
The Kremlin denies this. It also denies cracking down on opponents and using the courts for political purposes.
Putin proved immune to criticism of the high cost of the Games, thought to be around $50 billion, and said there was no evidence of widespread corruption. If presented with such evidence, he would investigate it, he said.
Criticism of the Games preparations was Western bias, he said, and had echoes of the Western policy of trying to “contain” the Soviet Union during the Cold War.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach praised Russian’s hosting of the Games, declaring: “We saw excellent Games and what counts most is the opinions of the athletes and they were enormously satisfied.”
Critics say nothing has changed fundamentally in Russia as a result of hosting the Olympics. They worry that things will now return to what they refer to as “business as usual”.
“The harassment, detentions, arrests, fabricated charges and unfair trials meted out to activists under the blazing lights of the world’s cameras were a blight on the Games,” said Sergei Nikitin, director of Amnesty International’s Moscow office.
“It does not bode well for when the Games are over and world media leaves Russia.”
Editing by Robert Woodward