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."
The protesters were well-scripted to make crystal clear what Putin and his co-conspirators want. Soon after they seized a regional administration building, they declared a "People's Republic of Donetsk," announcing plans for a referendum -- as was conducted in Crimea -- on secession from Ukraine by early May.
Ominously, as planned, they called on Russia's military to help defend them if they are attacked.
Ukrainian police and other forces were dispatched to the region to suppress the protests and take control of the seized government buildings.
But that could be the trigger Putin wants them to pull. Russia has condemned Ukraine's temporary government as illegitimate, since Yanukovych was overthrown, and this could be the pretense to order troops into eastern Ukraine to protect its Russian-speaking people.
If you are looking a strong, full-throated response from the White House to this well-choreographed provocation from the Putin regime, forget it.
"If Russia moves into eastern Ukraine, either overtly or covertly, this would be a very serious escalation," said Jay Carney, Obama's press secretary. No kidding?
Putin is betting that Obama or his secretary of State will respond with a statement filled with bluff and bluster and other assorted fulminations, but with little more than that.
The Russian strongman believes he holds all the cards in the Ukraine and knows full well that he can get away with pretty much anything he wants in a country that is still trying to put a new government together and has little or no military clout.
Putin believes Obama is weak, untested and that he's no longer seen, if he ever was, as a world leader. Under a feckless, U.S. foreign policy, Western Europe is divided if unsure about what to do, and looks to us for direction.
The view from Eastern Europe, which still fears Russian ambitions, is far more muscular, though it is no match for Russia's military might.
Czech President Milos Zeman said over the weekend that the West must take strong action in the face of Putin's threats, possibly sending NATO forces into Ukraine.
"The moment Russia decides to widen its territorial expansion to the eastern part of Ukraine, that is where the fun ends," Zeman said in a radio broadcast Sunday.
Neither the Obama administration nor our NATO allies are contemplating that step, at least not at the moment. But if Putin does go into eastern Ukraine, what should we do then?
He needs a land path to the Crimea peninsula he now controls, but that can only be through eastern Ukraine which he clearly wants to make part of Russia.
We have sent painfully meager, muted warnings up until now, but economic sanctions are dismissed by Putin who only understands military might. It should be clear by now that economic penalties have only encouraged him to take still greater risks in the belief that the West, in the end, will let him have his way.
What is needed, sooner rather than later, is a muscular response on many levels with the full backing of NATO to defend the territorial integrity and freedom of Ukraine.
Right now, Kiev is in the line of fire from Moscow and is under attack by Putin's defacto forces. His co-conspirators are seizing Ukraine's government buildings, openly calling for troops from Russia and talking up secession.
This is a time for bold leadership from the West. But as of now, that is in short supply, most especially in the White House.
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