Putin engages in test of will over Ukraine

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MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin has left little doubt he intends to cripple Ukraine's new government, forcing it to make concessions or face the de facto partition of areas populated predominantly by ethnic Russians, from the Crimea to Odessa to the industrial heartland in the east.

That strategy has been pursued aggressively by subterfuge, propaganda and bald military threat, taking aim as much at the United States and its allies in Europe as Ukraine itself. The pivotal question now for Kiev and Western capitals, is how boldly Mr. Putin continues to push his agenda, risking a more heated military and diplomatic conflict.

So far, the Kremlin has shown no sign of yielding to international pressure -- but it also has not taken the most provocative step yet, openly ordering Russian troops to reinforce those already in Crimea and expand its incursion into southern or eastern Ukraine.

Any escalation of Russia's military intervention, especially if it meets resistance and bloodshed, will almost certainly rattle investors and plunge Russia's unsteady economy into free fall. With the value of the ruble already falling, there was quick speculation of a rocky start when the stock market opens today.

For now, such calculations appear to be secondary to the fury that the toppling of former Ukranian President Viktor Yanukovych's government has caused inside the Kremlin. Ukraine has deep historical, social and religious connections to Russia that are often underestimated in the United States, especially. More significantly, Mr. Putin and the close circle of aides he relies on most, view the overthrow of Mr. Yanukovych as a coup orchestrated by the West to undercut Russia's vital interests.

Sergei Utkin, the head of the Department of Strategic Assessment, part of the Russian Academy of Sciences, said that the relentless anti-Americanism on state media was in the past dismissed as crude propaganda that served a transparent political purpose but appeared now to reflect the actual worldview of the Kremlin. "It's a catastrophe for Ukraine and for Russia," he said. "The problem is that quite a few people in Russia don't understand the consequences. They believe the country is strong and can do whatever it wants to do."


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