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All Eyes on Moscow: What's Putin's Next Move?

As Putin’s approach in Ukraine appears to be paying off at home, reassessing his support of the separatists following the MH17 crash might not be on his agenda.

MOSCOW — Only an hour after the first bodies recovered at the grim crash site in eastern Ukraine were flown into the Netherlands on Wednesday, the Russian-backed rebels were back to the business of war, taking out two Su-25 military jets and looking for the pilots who managed to eject and escape.

A separatist even fired his AK-47 into one of the smoldering engines of the fighter jets his fellow militants had shot down. This was their answer to those who had hoped the tragedy of the Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 crash would be a game-changer in Ukraine.

"Look, you Ukrainians! This is what will happen if you dare to fly here!" yelled the rebel over bursts from his machine gun.

As Russian President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy approach in Ukraine appears to be paying off with popularity at home, reassessing his support of the separatists in the volatile eastern part of that country following the Flight MH17 tragedy might not be on the long-time leader’s agenda.

“He’s a judoka, not a chess Grandmaster who calculates 10 moves in advance. In judo, if you see your opponent off balance, you go for it, hoping to throw him on his back for an instant victory.”

Earlier in the day, one could almost hear a collective sigh of relief in the Kremlin-controlled Russian media when news reached Moscow that U.S. intelligence officials had made a weak case of connecting Putin and his proxies to the MH17 catastrophe.

While the Americans concluded it was an anti-aircraft missile launched from within rebel-controlled territory that took out the ill-fated MH17, they found no trigger puller. It was impossible, they said, to know whether Russians or Ukrainians had targeted the Boeing 777. And that gave Putin a little wiggle room.

"Proof on the table!" mocked the popular tabloid Moskovsky Komsomolets.

This — as it turned out — was Putin’s response to the salvos of opprobrium fired at him by political leaders and the media since the deadly crash. “Putin’s Missile,” “Putin’s Victims” and “Putin’s Rebels Shoot Down Plane” are just a few of the Western headlines conveying the anger.

But, unflinchingly, Putin has carried on with his policies.

"Since the February revolution, his three objectives in Ukraine have been: one, to humiliate, punish, destabilize and, if necessary, dismember Ukraine," said Lee Aron, resident scholar and director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute, “two, scuttle or dilute sanctions, and most importantly, exploit any anti-Western hysteria at home to solidify his political base."

The tactics have paid off for Putin. Destabilizing Ukraine with a low-grade insurgency has made the divided nation look uninviting to Europe, much less to NATO – both seen as threats to Putin’s influence in the region. Meanwhile, he’s managed to drive a wedge between the U.S. and European Union when it comes to expanding sanctions against Russia, with most Europeans – dependent as they are on Russian imports like natural gas – feeling more reluctant to strike Russia too soon or deeply.

And numbers show his strategies have paid off at home: the most recent Gallup Poll gave Putin an astronomical 83 percent approval rating.

But as the war in Ukraine drags on, unintended consequences like the MH17 disaster, in which 298 people died, and the threat of costlier sanctions, have increased pressure on Putin to back down. Now, he faces an impossible choice.

As Josh Cohen, a former U.S. State Department official, explained in a recent op-ed for The Moscow Times: “If Putin intervenes more openly in Ukraine, perhaps by sending in the Russian Army, he risks the West imposing even more damaging sanctions,” which could turn Russia into an isolated, pariah state.

Already, many of Russia’s oligarchs and business titans are living in fear of just that, according to a report this week quoting Igor Bunin, the head of the Center for Political Technology in Moscow. “Nobody will speak out because of the implicit threat of retribution. Any sign of rebellion and they’ll be brought to their knees,” said Bunin.

But, on the other hand, Cohen continued, "Putin also faces substantial risks if he allows the separatists to be defeated." At the very least, he’ll look weak, and that alone could make his popularity plummet. At the worst, he could become a walking target for angry— and armed — Russian nationalists.

So, instead, Putin seems to be seeking a middle ground – pushing for a cease-fire and paying lip-service to peace negotiations to buy himself some time, while keeping on track his broader goal of degrading the neighbor to the west. Russia continues to deliver more weapons, including rockets and tanks, to Ukraine separatists, according to U.S. intelligence officials quoted by Reuters.

"But deliberately fighting a destructive war in Ukraine? For what? It makes no sense.”

But beyond keeping Ukraine out of Europe – and NATO away from Russia’s borders – few pretend to know what ultimate strategy drives the man with the mechanical gait, making him a persona non grata in much of Europe and the Western World. He even befuddles some of the experts.

“OK, South Korea, that I could understand. That’s a nation with real strategic purpose. But deliberately fighting a destructive war in Ukraine? For what? It makes no sense,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs.

But some analysts say Putin may not have a far-sighted or grand strategy after all.

"He’s a judoka, not a chess Grandmaster who calculates 10 moves in advance," said Aron, the Russian studies expert. "In judo, if you see your opponent off balance, you go for it, hoping to throw him on his back for an instant victory.”

And today in Ukraine — as in Syria, and Sochi and Crimea before it — the world waits, anxiously, for that next move.