STATE DEPARTMENT —
Russian President Vladimir Putin's approach to pro-Russian militants destabilizing southern and eastern Ukraine differs from his strategy on Crimea, where Russian forces took a more active role in breaking away the peninsula from Kyiv.
Massing Russian soldiers along the Ukrainian border mirrors the troop build-up that preceded Moscow's annexation of the Crimean peninsula.
Putin appears to have a different approach, however, to Russian-speaking Ukrainians in the southern and eastern provinces, some of whom want him to send troops to protect them.
American University professor Keith Darden said Putin sees those separatists not as future Russians, but more as a lever to influence what happens in Ukraine.
"Whereas Crimea he saw as a strategic asset that was important to pull away, the strategic value of the south and the east of Ukraine is within Ukraine as a bulwark against Kyiv turning further to the West, joining NATO, engaging more actively with the European Union. So he wants to keep them in Ukraine but more powerful," said Darden.
Separatists in Donetsk are planning a Crimea-like referendum on leaving Ukraine.
Denis Pushilin, one of the separatist leaders, said, "The referendum will make it possible for us to build a relationship with any other country, federalization or non-federalization, or just to gain independence."
Federalism is the most likely way Moscow would seek to maintain its hold on Russian-speakers in the south and east. Such an outcome, though, would give up far too much to Putin, according to Heritage Foundation researcher Ariel Cohen.
"What is really federalization of Ukraine? Federalization of Ukraine is rendering Ukraine impotent as a nation state. It is dictating a constitutional change to a neighboring country. And I am wondering what would federalization mean for Russia itself?" asks Cohen.
The Russian leader maintains that all Ukrainians should be free to choose their future, dismissing criticism that Moscow imposed the referendum on Crimea that led to annexation.
"If we are being honest and objective, then it will be clear to everyone that it is impossible to force people from their houses, their apartments under a gun and make them go to a polling station to vote," said Putin.
Putin said he is open to resuming normal relations with the West. He also said there can be no comparing Kyiv's actions against pro-Russian separatists today with Moscow's campaign against Chechen separatists in the 1990s.
"In the North Caucasus we were faced with an aggression by international terrorism. Those were properly-formed, well-prepared gangs supplied and armed from abroad. That is a big difference," said Putin.
Reagan Administration Soviet advisor John Lenczowski said Putin's approach in Ukraine is rife with Soviet-era tactics.
"Moscow is paranoid. This was a classic Soviet strategic deception theme," said Lenczowski. "It is designed to get everybody in the West to believe that we have to handle Moscow with kid gloves. 'We cannot provoke them too much, we cannot resist what they're doing or else it will provoke them and make things worse.'"
Russia says its troops along the border are not meant to interfere in Ukraine and are there only as a precaution against any spillover of violence.