WASHINGTON - Moscow's orchestrated demonstrations in eastern Ukraine, with Russian troops massing near the border, is the latest provocation in Vladimir Putin's plans to seize more territory from a neighboring country.
For weeks, Putin has been playing a skillful, diplomatic cat-and- mouse game with President Obama and Europe's major powers. Publicly, Kremlin officials said Russia had no intentions of seizing more Ukrainian territory, as Putin plotted a further territorial takeover in this fragile Eastern European nation.
The former KGB agent must be marveling at how easy it was to seize the Crimean peninsula without any serious recriminations. Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry warned of serious "costs" if Putin were to dare take control of Crimea. But in the end, their sanctions were merely taps on the wrist that haven't hurt Russia or its economy.
Instead, Obama was seen as weak in the tense standoff and his sanctions impotent. Putin, however, was seen as fully in command of the situation, pulling off the audacious land grab without so much as a scratch on him.
Like Obama, European leaders were caught flat footed throughout the lightening annexation of Crimea's territory, unable to follow through on their hollow threats.
That sent a message to the autocratic Russian leader that he could drive deeper into the Ukraine and probably get away with his dream of rebuilding a Greater Russia, one country at a time.
Putin made his first provocative moves this weekend in a closely coordinated plan with wealthy Russian-speaking power brokers in the Ukraine who bankrolled the protests.
These paid, pro-Russian demonstrators, who want to become part of the Russian empire again, took control of government buildings on Sunday in three eastern Ukraine cities close to the Russian border.
Ukraine Interior Minister Arsen Avakov charged Sunday that Putin and ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base and home town of Donetsk is in one of the targeted cities, were conspiring to fuel the protests.
"Putin and Yanukovych ordered and paid for the latest wave of separatist disorder in the east of the country," Avakov said in a statement. "The people who have gathered are not many but they are very aggressive."
Yanukovych's longtime political ally is Rinat Akhmetov, one of Ukraine's richest men who controls a coal empire in Donetsk. Ukrainian news agencies reported that Akhmetov was "bankrolling the separatist agitators in that city."