Moscow (AFP) - Russia aims to employ the well-tested strategy it used to destabilise its neighbours Georgia and Moldova, and with separatists gaining ground it looks like Moscow will succeed again, analysts said.
Last weekend, for the first time, President Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of "statehood" for eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian rebels are fighting against government forces.
While the Kremlin said Putin's comments were misinterpreted, "the choice of words were not by chance," said Fyodor Lukyanov, chief editor of Russia in Global Affairs.
Russia had previously only called for the region -- where Russian-speakers predominate -- to have more authority in a federal system.
Even that was a non-starter, but now that the rebels are pushing Ukrainian forces back, Moscow "is acting in a different manner," said Lukyanov.
Signs have multiplied in the past week that Russian forces are directly involved in the conflict, helping rebel forces stage a rapid counter-offensive that has thrown back government troops.
NATO says Russia has over a 1,000 soldiers deployed in Ukraine, a charge Moscow denies despite reports of secret funerals near military bases and wounded clogging up hospitals.
"Russia is saying to Kiev: 'We proposed a deal (on federalisation) and you didn't want it. Now, the offer has changed," said Lukyanov.
The offer is a familiar one.
In a bid to support Rusisan-speakers and maintain its influence in the region during the 1990s Moscow supported separatist movements in the Transdniestr region of Moldova and the Georgian regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
Russia even stationed peacekeepers or troops in those areas which had unilaterally declared independence, and briefly fought a war with Georgia in 2008 after Tbilisi sent its soldiers into South Ossetia.
The Russian intervention has destabilised the two countries and to some extent slowed down their Western integration.
- 'New Russia' -
In the case of Ukraine, Russia is also looking to maintain its influence.
"It is clear that Russia wants to have lots of influence on the government of Ukraine so that it doesn't take the wrong path, that which would take it closer to the West and above all with NATO," independent analyst Maria Lipman told AFP.
"And the possible creation of an independent state within Ukraine which depends upon Moscow will help Russia achieve that objective," she added.
The Kremlin has recently resurrected the term "Novorossiya", or "New Russia", a loaded Tsarist-era term for several regions in southeastern Ukraine, in a move that has enraged Kiev.
Representatives of pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine said Monday they are seeking a special status for the region.
The rebel representatives want Kiev to recognise such a a status for the Donetsk and Lugansk regions, which would "take into consideration the necessity of deeping economic integration with Russia and the (Russian-led) Customs Union," Interfax quoted a rebel representative as saying.
This would mean a de facto division of the country as Kiev intends to deepen economic ties with the European Union.
The problem with Ukraine, as opposed with the previous Russian interventions, is that borders of any such new state are difficult to determine, both as the territory controlled by the rebels continues to shift and as it is unclear what other areas might want to join.
But more important than the eventual borders of this statelet is the point Moscow wants to make to Kiev, according to independent analyst Sergei Mikheyev.
The Kremlin "above all wants to make the Ukrainian authorities understand that Russia is right next to them, and that what Ukraine is doing doesn't change its geographic situation," said Mikheyev.
"You can detest Russia like you detest your worst enemy, but you can't ignore its presence," he added.