Defiant: Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Defiant: Russian President Vladimir Putin. Photo: Reuters

Over the past fortnight, drama, hype and apocalyptic scenarios dominated coverage of events in Ukraine in the West. The public was informed that Moscow had declared war on Ukraine, Crimea was under Russian military occupation, and the invasion of eastern Ukraine was imminent. United States senator John McCain had his trademark ''we are all Ukrainians'' moment, and US National Security Adviser Susan Rice urged Vladimir Putin not to send tanks into Kiev. The only hope for peace was Barack Obama, ''the professional president'', according to a BBC commentator, who stood in the way of a certain ''small, strutting hard man with a passion to re-create an old empire''.

This dominant narrative featuring an expansionist Kremlin trying to restore control over the former Soviet republic is getting stale. US officials may continue to pretend it was their hard-line stance and tough talk that averted an imaginary Russian aggression, but there is a growing realisation in the West, and especially in Europe, that what has driven Putin's policy vis-a-vis Ukraine is the pragmatic pursuit of national security interests that has nothing to do with imperialism.

These interests are two-fold and apply to all former Soviet republics: the preclusion of NATO's eastward expansion, and the protection of the well-being of ethnic Russians and Russian speakers. Both have been articulated clearly and consistently by the Kremlin since 2000. The legality or morality of these interests may be questioned, just like the US concepts of pre-emptive war or expediting Jeffersonian democracy via regime change, but they are good predictors of Moscow's behaviour.

The crisis in Ukraine arose from Washington's decision to ignore Russia's core interests in the country following the demise of President Viktor Yanukovych. Even ardent Russophobes such as Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, acknowledge Putin's decisive role in persuading Yanukovych to agree to a power transition and refrain from violence, which led to an EU-endorsed deal between the government and opposition on February 21. Moscow reasonably expected to have constructive relations with whoever would come to power in Kiev.

Instead, it had to face the ascendancy of a pro-US nationalist coalition led by Arseny Yatsenyuk (endearingly referred to as ''Yats'' in conversations of State Department officials leaked a month ago). The new regime took steps to cancel Ukraine's non-aligned status, fixed in 2010 law, and expedite its accession to NATO. It repealed the law permitting the use of Russian as a regional language (it has now suspended that action following an outcry from Europe), imposed restrictions on Russian media, and failed to rein in the gun-toting radicals who were part of the anti-Yanukovych protest. Most disturbingly, far from being a representative, inclusive and democratic entity as portrayed by the Western media, the new regime harassed judges and MPs, had opposition politicians arrested, and made a series of executive appointments at the cabinet and regional administration levels that are discriminatory and outright threatening in the eyes of the population of eastern and southern Ukraine.

The freshly minted deputy governor of the Dnipropetrovsk region has advised authorities in Kiev to pacify their opponents in the south-east by lavish promises and then have them hanged.

Now officials in Washington ''just want'' Russia to talk directly to Kiev. Why would Moscow wish to do that? Such negotiations would mean de facto recognition of Yatsenyuk's government.

The Kremlin's message is clear: it will continue dialogue with the West as sponsor of the new regime, but not the regime itself until it returns to the agreements of February 21 or subjects itself to electoral legitimation.

Russia's actions in Crimea ought to be viewed through the prism of its national security interests. Moscow does not want to annex the peninsula, but it is prepared to use it as an instrument of hard diplomacy. The referendum on the status of Crimea is set to demonstrate that the new order in Kiev does not enjoy universal support. If the message is heard, there is no need for Crimea to secede. It will remain part of Ukraine, with an upgraded autonomy perhaps, with a veto power on any legislation pushing the country towards NATO or discriminating against non-Ukrainian minorities.

Russia is not at war with Ukraine. There is no economic blockade, and co-operation between the two countries continues on many levels. Putin is interested in a neutral, stable, and prosperous Ukraine just like the leaders of ''Old Europe'' and, hopefully, Obama. A mutually acceptable compromise can be achieved.

As a first step, the West might stop the pretense that Kiev's drift towards NATO and ethno-nationalism is in the interest of the ''people of Ukraine''. It might compel the revolutionary regime to subject policy decisions to proper popular discussion, consultation and validation via a nation-wide referendum. Moscow's first step is also obvious - it might drop its support for Yanukovych as the country's sole legitimate representative. This wouldn't be too hard, given the well-known antipathy of the Russian President towards his deposed Ukrainian colleague.

Dr Kirill Nourzhanov is senior lecturer at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East and Central Asia) at the Australian National University.