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Russia to 'Intensify' Military Exercises Near Ukraine Border

Russian President Vladimir Putin shakes hands with Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev during a Security Council meeting in Sochi March 13, 2014
The Russian military is conducting exercises in several regions of the country near the border with Ukraine, as a state-run polling agency reports that President Vladimir Putin’s approval rating has hit a new high.

The most notable thing about Thursday's news items from Russia is how they are connected.

In the morning, the Russian Defense Ministry stated on its website that it planned to "intensify" combat training exercises in the Rostov, Belgorod, Kursk and Tambov regions -- three of which lie on the border with Ukraine.

Mark Galeotti is a professor of global affairs at New York University who specializes in Russian security issues.

“It could mean everything or it could mean nothing. It could simply be part of their strategy to increase their pressure on Ukraine. On the other hand, if Russia really is contemplating wider military action into eastern Ukraine, this would be one of the precursors,” said Galeotti.

Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense columnist for the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, says the public announcement was also a tacit message for pro-Russian sympathizers in Ukraine. "Russian troops are just behind the corner, and if they move to declare these regions 'Russian,' as it happened in Crimea, that Russia could swiftly move in," said Felgenhauer.

At a meeting in Sochi with his advisory Security Council, President Putin underscored Russia was not to blame for the situation, which he called an "internal Ukrainian crisis."

Felgenhauer says Russians support the president's hard line toward the new Ukrainian government.

“The majority of Russians support Vladimir Putin and support (a) possible move of Russian troops into -- not only into Crimea, but other parts of Ukraine,” he said.

And polling data -- at least data provided by the state-owned All-Russian Center for the Study of Public Opinion, or VTsIOM -- indeed show a spike in the Russian president's popularity. According to VTsIOM, Mr. Putin’s approval rating, thanks largely to his handling of Ukraine, hit 71 percent Thursday -- its highest level since the 68 percent approval rating registered during his May 2012 inauguration.