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The Russians Are Coming: Putin's End Game in Ukraine?

Image: Military trucks travel through the steppe near the village of Krasnodarovka

Military trucks travel through the steppe near the village of Krasnodarovka in Rostov region August 28. Maria Tsvetkova / Reuters

It would appear that the proverbial elephant — or perhaps in this case, the bear — in the living room has finally been revealed.

The Kremlin may still deny it, but the evidence of a Russian invasion, or at least an incursion, into Ukraine is compelling: NATO spy photos, eye-witness accounts from fleeing Ukrainian soldiers, and even a ranking member of Vladimir Putin’s own human-rights council, all seem to point toward the presence of Russian soldiers — several battalions’ worth and with sophisticated weapons — fighting with the rebels and slowing, if not reversing, the recent Ukrainian military’s momentum on the battlefield.

Even Alexander Zakharchenko, the separatist leader of Donetsk, the regional capital, proudly told viewers of Russian state television Thursday that 3,000 to 4,000 Russian soldiers had come to fight in eastern Ukraine, many during their own furloughs.

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But if the once unthinkable is fact, then what is the Russian president really up to now? Opening up a new front in the war, the rebels say they are pushing — with Moscow’s help — to the Sea of Azov, in Ukraine’s southeast, to give any future breakaway entity there access to a warm-water port.

Some Ukrainians fear that Putin’s real goal is a land corridor linking Russia and Crimea, the strategic Ukrainian peninsula Putin annexed in March after the Moscow-friendly government in Kiev fell.

A number of NATO officials have spoken of Putin’s "grand plan": nothing less than resurrecting the Soviet Union, an ambition that — in Putin’s mind — would make a pro-Europe, pro-NATO Ukraine, looming on his very doorstep, a threat that must be removed or at least seriously weakened.

Image: Russian military units moving in a convoy formation with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, Ukraine, well inside territory controlled by Russian separatists, in this satellite image captured on Aug. 21
Russian military units moving in a convoy formation with self-propelled artillery in the area of Krasnodon, Ukraine, well inside territory controlled by Russian separatists, in this satellite image captured on Aug. 21. There is confidence the equipment is Russian, since Ukrainian units have not yet penetrated this far into separatist controlled territory.Digital Globe

But other voices are not as shrill. Fyodor Lukyanov, the Editor of "Russia in Global Affairs" and the Chairman of Russia’s Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, believes that Putin actually lacks a big strategy, but excels at quick, reactive tactics. He told NBC News that the Russian incursion into Ukraine is all about pressuring Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to reach an agreement. "To let him know that the war is unwinnable," Lukyanov said, "and to accept direct talks with the separatists."

"That simply will never happen," insisted Ukrainian analyst Sergei Strokan, who works for the Russian radio station “Voice of Russia.” He said the likelihood of Poroshenko sitting down and negotiating with the rebels — the Ukrainians call them "terrorists" — would be like former President George W. Bush bargaining face-to-face with Osama bin Laden. "Never. It would be political suicide," said Strokan. "To recognize the rebels you would have to wipe today’s Ukraine off the map and replace it with some new, non-existent Ukraine."

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Putin, ever the shadowy former KGB officer, rarely speaks or writes about his end-game in Ukraine, besides some platitudes about protecting the Russian minority there and wanting a prosperous and unified neighbor. Which makes all the speculation about Putin’s true intentions all the more intriguing … and probably wrong.

But Ukrainian government officials like Andrei Kuzmenko, acting ambassador to the United Kingdom, have no doubt about what drives Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. "He can’t bear to see, and will do everything to prevent, a thriving, free, democratic country like Ukraine on his border," Kuzmenko told NBC News. "For the simple reason that, if we Ukrainians can do it, so could the Russians … at his own peril."