Medical workers and pro-Russian activists unload the bodies of killed pro-Russian fighters from a truck, in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk, on May 27, 2014. AFP PHOTO / FABIO BUCCIARELLI
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An army assault on pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine will not have taken Vladimir Putin by surprise, but the ferocity of the clashes may have – and could be a game changer if they spin out of control.The likelihood of Russian forces pouring into east Ukraine to capture mainly Russian-speaking areas has receded, and Putin appears to have settled for the gains he has made so far in the worst East-West standoff since the Cold War.Putin seems, at least for now, to have rejected the option of sending in the army, but has opened a Pandora's Box by whipping up nationalist sentiment over Ukraine.A former KGB spy with a tough-guy image, Putin would suffer a blow to his standing at home if he were seen as abandoning Russian speakers in Ukraine or did not meet force with force.As long as the troops are there, the threat of armed intervention by Russia will continue to hang over Ukraine, even if it is not Putin's first choice of action.
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