- - Tuesday, April 8, 2014

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, Mr. 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 Mr. 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. Mr. Obama and Secretary of State John F. Kerry warned of serious “costs” if he 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, Mr. Obama was seen as weak in the tense standoff and his sanctions impotent. Mr. 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 Mr. Obama, European leaders were caught flat-footed throughout the lightning 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 Ukraine and probably get away with his dream of rebuilding a Greater Russia, one country at a time.

Mr. Putin made his first provocative moves this weekend in a closely coordinated plan with wealthy Russian-speaking power brokers in 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 Ukrainian cities close to the Russian border.

Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov charged Sunday that Mr. Putin and ousted Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, whose political base and hometown 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,” Mr. Avakov said in a statement. “The people who have gathered are not many, but they are very aggressive.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Akhmetov was “bankrolling the separatist agitators in that city.”

The protesters were well-scripted to make crystal clear what Mr. 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.

However, that could be the trigger Mr. Putin wants them to pull. Russia has condemned Ukraine’s temporary government as illegitimate, since Mr. Yanukovych was overthrown, and this could be the pretense to order troops into eastern Ukraine to protect its Russian-speaking people.

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