* Threat of Russian invasion hangs over east Ukraine
* Putin seen more likely to stir dissent than send in troops
* Russians glad to win back Crimea but most don't want war
By Steve Gutterman
MOSCOW, March 17 As Russian forces took control
of Crimea in the last few weeks, Russian media started referring
to a broad belt of land in southern Ukraine as Novorossiya, or
The revival of the Tsarist-era name plays well with Russian
voters and harks back to a remark in 2008 when President
Vladimir Putin told NATO leaders the area contained "only
Russians". Six years on, Ukrainians are worried that comment is
starting to look prophetic.
With Russia's armed forces holding war games near the border
and Moscow threatening to intervene to halt violence against
Russians in Ukraine, some fear Putin will not stop at Crimea and
may try to grab more territory in the east and south.
Some Russians dream of annexing most of eastern and southern
Ukraine, cutting the country in half and extending Moscow's
reach to the border of Transnistria, a breakaway sliver of
Moldova that has strong Russian ties.
"It's clear that the Kremlin's actions ... will be aimed at
acquiring this whole piece of land up to Transnistria - and, of
course, the eastern regions (of Ukraine)," Russian political
commentator Yulia Latynina said on Ekho Moskvy radio.
Doing so would dramatically raise the stakes in the biggest
dispute between Russia and the West since the Cold War and
increase the danger of direct military conflict.
But although such dreams have echoes of Serbian leader
Slobodan Milosevic's vision of a Greater Serbia before the
Balkan wars of the 1990s, many Western experts see such threats
largely as posturing.
They suggest Putin may be trying to frighten the West into
letting him keep Crimea, a Black Sea peninsula, in the hope that
he will not press on with his ambitions.
"Putin would be mad to invade Ukraine," one Western official
said, adding that he would be more likely to decide on "playing
it long, fomenting rebellion among the ethnic Russians" in the
long-term hope of winning control of territory without a fight.
The Eurasia Group, a U.S.-based think tank, said that "a
Russian invasion remains very possible but on balance unlikely".
"Moscow will continue to seek more influence primarily by
destabilising eastern Ukraine," it said.
Russia's plans for eastern Ukraine remain hard to predict
but even if few people in the West believe a military conflict
is likely, almost no one seems to rule it out.
FAST MOVES IN CRIMEA
Moscow has moved fast to bring Crimea into the fold after
Ukraine's Moscow-backed president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled Kiev
on Feb. 21 after signing a deal with his opponents intended to
end three months of anti-government protests.
Yanukovich had set off the protests with his decision in
November to spurn political and trade deals with the European
Union and instead seek closer ties with Moscow.
After such a bitter defeat for Putin, a chance of gaining
something out of the crisis emerged in Crimea, where Russia's
Black Sea fleet is based.
Russian forces bloodlessly took over military bases and
pro-Russia forces took charge of the region's parliament and
government. Russia said the armed groups, without any insignia,
were not sent by Moscow - a statement ridiculed in the West.
On Sunday the southern peninsula, which has an ethnic
Russian majority, voted for union with Russia.
Frequent violence in eastern Ukraine, involving pro-Russians
and groups loyal to the new Kiev authorities, raises the
prospect of Russian forces moving into eastern and southern
Kiev says Russia is deliberately trying to incite violence
to create an excuse to invade. Moscow denies this.
On March 1, Putin secured permission from his parliament to
send the military into Ukraine to protect Russians if needed.
He has put forces near the border on alert twice in recent weeks
for sabre-rattling military drills.
After meeting U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday,
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov assured the world Russia "does
not and cannot have any plans to invade the southeastern regions
of Ukraine", but added that only the staunch resolve of armed
units in Crimea had prevented bloodshed there.
Putin kept the implicit threat of invasion alive in
telephone talks with U.S. President Barack Obama on Sunday,
saying Russia was concerned by what he called "rampant violence
by ultra-nationalist and radical groups that destabilise the
situation and terrorise civilians".
RUSSIA MEDIA WHIP UP HOSTILITY
Russian state media have beamed similarly dire depictions
into the homes of millions of Russians, portraying Ukraine as a
chaotic and violent state on the verge of collapse and
suggesting Russian-speakers are living under constant threat of
attack by the "neo-fascists" they say have taken control in
"The country is falling apart at the seams," presenter
Dmitry Kiselyov, who was awarded a medal by Putin last month for
"service to the fatherland", said on his weekly show on Sunday.
Plenty of Russian politicians, both inside and outside
Putin's camp, say Moscow is ready to rescue Russians in Ukraine
- and anyone there who feels impoverished or downtrodden.
Communist Party leader Gennady Zyuganov said the Crimean
referendum should be "an example for many regions of Ukraine
which are now in a distressed and difficult situation".
Vera Goloshchapova, a 60-year-old pensioner in the
southeastern Ukrainian coal mining city of Donetsk, needs no
referendum. She would welcome a Russian invasion now.
"Ukraine has abandoned us," she said, blaming violence in
the city on nationalists from western Ukraine whom she
associates with militants she said killed her relatives during
World War Two. "I have no motherland - it's been ripped to
shreds. Let Putin send in forces."
Even if Western governments were to accept Russia's claim of
a threat to its citizens in eastern Ukraine, however, sending in
troops would be highly risky for Putin.
"Are we really going to kill each other? I can't get my head
around it," said Lyudmila Tsymbalyuk, 50, a nurse in Donetsk. "I
don't want to be in Russia. Nobody is oppressing me here."
At home, Putin's popularity has shot up amid strong support
for bringing Crimea into Russia. But polls show few people in
Russia want war, and some would see sending in troops as an act
of aggression against what he has called a "brother nation".
"In ... Crimea it was all done well. There was no violence,"
Russian pensioner Vera Zatsevina, 59, said outside the GUM
department store on Moscow's Red Square. "Now, though, it looks
like it is western Ukraine versus eastern Ukraine and I am
worried about a war. It's better when things are peaceful."
There is a danger of the confrontation rising to a new
level, increasing the wrath of the United States and Europe and
leading to further sanctions in addition to those set out by
Brussels and Washington on Monday.
Many Russians welcome what they regard as Crimea's return,
which could be approved by Russian parliament within a few days.
The region was transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 by
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, apparently on a whim. This had
rankled ever since.
Suggesting Russia wanted to grab more territory, Andriy
Paruby, Secretary of Ukraine's National Security and Defence
Council, said a Russian plot had been foiled to seize control of
eight other regional government headquarters.
"Russia is trying to send trained and armed saboteurs" into
Ukraine, Paruby said, but he added that the authorities were
detaining hundreds of them every day. "Despite the efforts of
Kremlin strategists, we are managing to keep the situation in
the southern and eastern regions under control," he said.
Putin could, however, settle for less then full secession or
annexation of mainly Russian-speaking regions in Ukraine, the
cradle of Russian civilisation and regarded by many Russians as
little more than their country's vassal.
Russia could use discord in the east and south to press for
a new constitution that would give Ukraine's regions broad
powers - part of a plan, analysts say, to keep the nation
formally intact while corroding its unity, breaking it apart in
practice and gaining as much influence as possible.
Still, Putin has already rewritten Russia's foreign policy
playbook, and few believe an invasion can be ruled out.
The Eurasia Group put the probability that Russia would
invade eastern Ukraine at 40 percent. As the Western official
put it: "Putin may decide to go for the jugular quickly."
In Donetsk, that was the fear of the nurse, Tsymbalyuk.
"Putin has lost his mind," she said. "He has the nuclear button,
there are tanks at the border. Crimea is already under Russia,
tomorrow will it be Donetsk?"
(Additional reporting by Lina Kushch in Donetsk, Natalia Zinets
in Kiev, Ian Bateson in Moscow and Peter Apps in London; Editing
by Timothy Heritage and David Stamp)