Kiev: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev followed his Belarussian counterpart to Ukraine on Monday as Moscow`s old allies built bridges to Europe while Russia`s financial crisis and diplomatic isolation grew.
Both visits were ostensibly made to kickstart stalled peace negotiations between Kiev and the two Russian-speaking regions of eastern Ukraine that rebelled against Kiev in April.
Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko hosted such talks in September and is hoping to do so again in Minsk in the coming days.
But Nazarbayev has no evident link to the eight-month conflict and remains a prominent member of a Russian-dominated economic union that includes Belarus and once had aspirations to enlist Ukraine.
A senior Ukrainian official told AFP that both leaders -- criticised in the West for their intolerance of political dissent -- were now trying to shake off the Kremlin and forge partnerships in Europe because Russian President Vladimir Putin "is weak".
Some political analysts in Russia agreed.
"This is an unambiguous signal to Putin," said Konstantin Kalachyov of Moscow`s Political Expert Group think tank.
"Both Kazakhstan and Belarus fear that their union with Russia will be engulfed by (an economic) crisis."Putin angrily rejects backing Ukraine`s separatist fighters and calls the waves of Western sanctions a remnant of Cold War-era thinking designed to contain Russia and possibly even topple his team.
The veteran Kremlin leader is due on Tuesday to receive both Nazarbayev and Lukashenko for a summit of leaders from neighbouring nations that have formed a loose military bloc.
But his relations with Lukashenko have been strained by the Belarussian strongman`s refusal to let Russian industrial giants take over his state companies in return for discounted energy deliveries.
And Nazarbayev has balanced his Central Asian country`s interests evenly between those of Russia and China -- its southeastern neighbour and increasingly important trading partner.
"Kazakhstan has equal regard for both Russia and Ukraine," Nazarbayev said on the eve of his visit to Kiev.
"We have no conflicts of interest. I am what they call an honest broker."
Lukashenko also appeared keen to cast himself as someone ready to stand up to Russia if their views did not coincide, during talks with Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Sunday.
He appeared to be referring to Putin when he told the Ukrainian leader: "They keep saying that Lukashenko is afraid of someone. But I am not afraid."
Belarussian state media then quoted Lukashenko as saying that he supported holding "secret" negotiations about building stronger cross-border ties with Ukraine.
"Let`s not say anything to anyone at all but do it in secret -- just as long as there is progress in this direction," Lukashenko was quoted as saying.The US and EU sanctions have cut off Russia`s biggest companies from Western money markets and put them in danger of going bankrupt.
And the Kremlin`s ability to provide their rescue has been limited by a recent plunge in the global price on Russian oil and gas exports.
But the Western restrictions have hardly dented Putin`s domestic approval -- still estimated at around 80 percent -- or dramatically altered his public approach to Ukraine.
US President Barack Obama on Sunday dismissed the notion that Putin was "the chess master and outmaneuvering the West and outmaneuvering Mr Obama and this and that and the other."
"Right now, he`s presiding over the collapse of his currency, a major financial crisis and a huge economic contraction," he told CNN.
"That doesn`t sound like somebody who has rolled me or the United States of America."