By F. Michael Maloof

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WASHINGTON – Having effectively annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin is setting his sights on a broader effort to fragment an unstable Ukraine, unless the embattled country decides to look eastward once again toward Russia.

As WND recently reported, Putin’s goal is to take over the entire Ukraine either by further annexation or installing a leader he can control. That aim may be possible in the southern and industrial eastern portion of the country, where ethnic Russians are more prevalent.

However, it will be a challenge if he tries to bring in the western portion where the interim government in the country’s capital, Kiev, just signed an agreement with the European Union to establish a political association.

The agreement gives Ukraine political and financial support, with preferential access to EU markets. It also integrates Ukraine more into the EU’s foreign and security policies.

Fragmentation of Ukraine could alter the balance of power throughout Central Europe, subject it to direct pressures from a reassertive Russia, according to regional experts.

Sources say Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov already has indicated Russian intentions to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. The ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych showed that Moscow would be unable to have someone favorable at the top of Ukrainian leadership.

The sources further point out that Moscow intends to bring friendly people to power in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions, come up with new constitutions for their regions and subsequently isolate and frustrate the Kiev central government.

Obama administration officials concede that despite all the Western posturing and threats of increased sanctions, Russia could take more of Ukraine, if not all of it.

In turn, the prospect of further Russian encroachment has prompted observers to question the increasing relevancy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO.

The observers say Putin’s real intention is to diminish NATO, which is having problems with its own 16 European members, who are not living up to their defense commitments due to their serious economic problems.

The Moscow-backed leaders in Crimea, Sergey Aksyonov and Vladimir Konstantinov, advocate the Kremlin’s Greater-Russia nationalism, according to Russian expert Vladimir Socor of the Washington think-tank Jamestown Foundation.

The development has trans-border implications in the Kremlin calculation.

Aksyonov and Konstantinov are Russians, but Aksyonov is from Moldova while Konstantinov is from Transnistria, areas that have a large ethnic Russian population. In addition, Transnistria has Russian troops.

The ethnic Russians in these areas, as in Crimea, could begin to clamor for Russian annexation.

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