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Vladimir Putin Has Upper Hand as Ukraine Talks Begin

In Kiev, Putin faces an inexperienced government, which issued a 24-hour deadline to separatists and then let it pass without acting on it.
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Vladimir Putin portrays himself as a hard man. Judo is his chosen sport. In a judo match, the expert waits until his opponent is off balance, then pounces. This is what Putin is doing in Ukraine. His opponents in this global sparring match are being wrong-footed. A moment of imbalance is fast approaching.

This story is a news analysis from NBC News chief global correspondent Bill Neely.

In Kiev, he faces an inexperienced government, which issued a 24-hour deadline to separatists and then let it pass without acting on it. They have acted now, but they are walking a tightrope they have never been on before.

In Washington, Putin faces a president who declared a red line over chemical weapons in Syria and then failed to enforce it.

And in Western Europe, he faces governments that can't agree on a way forward and who fear the loss of future trade and business with Russia.

The crisis hits a critical moment on Thursday in Geneva. Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his counterparts from Russia, Ukraine and the European Union. It will be the first time that the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers have met since Russia took Crimea.

Putin is on a roll, after rolling through the peninsula with hardly a shot fired in anger. His troops there never identified themselves and seeped in so quietly, so quickly, it was the stealthiest of takeovers.

Time has moved on since then; literally in Crimea, where they put their clocks forward to match Moscow time.

Now, men in similar uniforms, refusing to identify themselves, have taken over buildings in eastern Ukraine.

Some troops on Ukrainian armored personnel carriers have displayed Russian flags, suggesting they've switched sides.

This a defining moment for Ukraine, a time of danger unparalleled in its short, independent history.

Image: Pro-Russian protesters take photos of Ukrainian soldiers sitting on their armored vehicle in Kramatorsk, Ukraine
Pro-Russian protesters take photos of Ukrainian soldiers sitting on their armored vehicle in Kramatorsk, Ukraine, April 16. Pro-Russian protestors blocked a column of Ukrainian armored vehicles en route to Slaviansk and did not allow them to pass.KONSTANTIN IVANOV / EPA

It's a crisis that has spread fear through at least a dozen European countries.

Apart from Belarus, which has remained in Russia's orbit since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the countries around Ukraine are extremely nervous about Moscow's long-term intentions, which remain a mystery.

NATO has sent troops and warplanes to Eastern Europe to reassure alliance members like Poland. But those countries will take a lot of reassuring about the old Russian foe that has so often trampled over their lands before swallowing them. The Polish foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, said of the events in Ukraine: "If it looks like a horse and walks like a horse, it's usually a horse."

So after Crimea, we are beginning the second phase of this crisis. But countries across Europe are looking ahead anxiously to what might be a third phase.

We know Putin yearns for a return to the glory days of the Soviet Union, when Russians were feared or respected across the globe. He called its collapse "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century." He wants to project Russia's power again and to regain some of what was lost, especially in its own backyard.

Which is why he began with Crimea, for centuries a battleground and a graveyard for Russian troops. But Kiev is even more 'Russian'; it's the birthplace of the Russian nation, culture and identity, the medieval capital where the Russian imperial idea was born.

So Putin is eyeing mainland Ukraine. He doesn't need to invade it and has reportedly assured world leaders by telephone that he will not. But he can weaken it so badly that he effectively controls it, ensuring the pro-Russian east has maximum autonomy from pro-Western Kiev, ensuring the price of the gas Russia supplies to Ukraine is so high it makes Kiev squeal. He can, almost literally, turn the taps of pressure on and off.

The next step, which of course may never happen, but which is being talked about from the Baltic to the Black Sea, could be triggered by several trip wires that have lain across the continent for years, in some cases decades.

The pro-Russian enclave of Transnistria, which has broken away from Moldova, lies close enough to Crimea to tempt Moscow to join them up.

Kaliningrad, once the capital of Prussia when it was called Koenigsberg, is a small piece of Russia inside the European Union, sandwiched between Poland and Lithuania and not far from the spot on the Baltic where World War II broke out. It is the home of Russia's Baltic fleet and a place Moscow will go to any lengths to "protect."

Then there are the Russian speaking populations of the Baltic countries, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. They are not large, but large enough for Moscow to make mischief with, should it choose.

Any one of these areas could provide Putin with a pretext to further intervene in Eastern Europe and reattach the scattered remnants of the Soviet empire to the motherland.

Back in eastern Ukraine, the tension mounts and the armed men multiply. Day by day, Putin is getting closer to having an excuse to intervene. He may not want to, but he already has Russian parliamentary approval to invade Ukraine.

What's alarming is that it's becoming clearer is that neither the EU nor the US has a convincing strategy to stop him doing exactly what he wants to do in Ukraine's industrial heartland.