As Ukraine’s political crisis continued to intensify, President Leonid Kuchma stuck to his basic strategy, which boils down to “when in doubt, brazen it out.” First he fired Leonid Derkach, head of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), and Volodymyr Shepel, chief of the State Guard Directorate, apparently because they had failed to protect his office from the bugging that had implicated him in the disappearance and suspected murder of journalist Georgy Gongadze late last year and triggered a wave of protests. Just days later, the country’s Prosecutor General’s Office, clearly at Kuchma’s behest, arrested Yulia Tymoshenko, the former deputy energy minister turned opposition leader, for allegedly paying a $79 million bribe to former Prime Minister Pavlo Lazarenko, who is himself currently doing jail time in California.

Kuchma’s “Crisis, what crisis?” strategy was on full display during an interview with Russian state television. He declared that he fully intended to serve until the next elections, set for 2004, insisting there were no signs of either a political crisis or an opposition in his country. For good measure, he pinned all of Ukraine’s foreign policy problems on Tymoshenko. Psychologically, his comments were of a piece with ones he had made earlier in the month, when he compared a February 6 protest in Kiev, during which 5000-6000 demonstrators called for his resignation, with the 1923 Nazi putsch in Germany.

Washington, meanwhile, again called on Kyiv to conduct a proper investigation into Gongadze’s disappearance. Perhaps in response, the Ukrainian tax authorities launched a probe into the Kyiv office of Freedom House, the American human rights organization. Ukrainian lawmakers had asked the New York-based group to conduct an independent verification of whether the tapes implicating Kuchma in Gongadze’s disappearance were, as the Ukrainian president claims, fake. For his part, President Vladimir Putin, who was more than happy to act as an enabler for Kuchma’s state of political denial, thought it a good time to drop in on his neighbor and sign a series of bilateral economic cooperation agreements, including one reuniting Russia’s and Ukraine’s electrical power grids. After all, what are friends for?