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Ahead of Ukraine talks, what options to end crisis?

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Top diplomats from Ukraine, Russia, the United States and European Union are to meet in Geneva Thursday to try to defuse what has become one of the worst European security crisis in decades.

But as tensions soar to dangerous levels in Ukraine, threatened with a split between its Russian-speaking east and EU-leaning west, how far is Russia prepared to go to assert control over the country and what options do Western countries and Kiev have to counter this?

RUSSIA: Lone power with a mission

Pro-Russia gunmen have taken over town halls and police stations in nearly 10 cities across Ukraine's southeast -- a move that shows strong similarities with what happened in Crimea before it was annexed by Moscow.

Russia strongly denies any links to the militants but Kiev thinks otherwise, accusing Moscow of wanting to destabilise the country to prove that the government has lost control.

"There is a real likelihood that this could get out of control, it's a very dangerous game they're playing," says John Lough, an expert on Russia at the London-based Chatham House think tank.

"By upping the stakes, what they (Russia) want to do is get the US and EU to the table, persuade them that only Russia has a realistic solution to these problems," he says.

"They have many more levers than the EU and US to influence Ukraine. They care very deeply about the future of Ukraine... whereas there are a lot of people in European capitals who have only just woken up to the fact that Ukraine is a very big country that is now very unstable."

But while some fear that Russia now wants to annex large swathes of the southeast just as it did with Crimea, Anne de Tinguy, a researcher at Paris's Sciences-Po university, says Moscow does not need this.

"Putin wants a subservient Ukraine," she says in an interview with daily Liberation.

THE WEST: Under pressure to do more

The European Union and United States have imposed sanctions on key Russian and Ukrainian officials and business leaders, including members of Russian President Vladimir Putin's inner circle, freezing their assets and issuing visa bans.

On Monday, EU foreign ministers agreed to expand the list of those hit with sanctions.

Andy Hunder, head of the London-based Ukrainian Institute, says the West can also implement broader "Iran-style sanctions" targeting specific economic sectors.

"Vladimir Putin is more afraid of the Western banks than of the Western tanks. There is a lot of Russian money in places like London, and with sanctions targeting people who are close to him, these will start telling him he has to do something," he said.

But Lough says there are limits to what can be done, "particularly when EU countries don't want to see their own companies hurt by Russian retaliation."

"I would expect to see some de facto restrictions on Russian companies looking to invest in European markets, I would expect probably more investigations of the behaviour of Russian companies in the European market," Lough adds.

He points to a long-standing major EU anti-trust case being brought against Russia's natural gas giant Gazprom as an example of what can be done.

But what would be more decisive, analysts say, is a longer-term EU decision to import the 25 percent of energy supplies it currently gets from Russia from elsewhere.

KIEV: On the back foot

The new government in Kiev, meanwhile, has been unable to reassert control over the country.

It is hesitating to use force and so far, a "full-scale anti-terrorist operation" launched to dislodge those occupying buildings has not materialised.

The government is coming under increasing pressure from its supporters to act more decisively, but Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on Tuesday warned it not to.

"You can't send in tanks and at the same time hold talks, and the use of force would sabotage the opportunity offered by the four-party negotiations in Geneva," he said.

But Ukrainians in the southeast do not all support their giant neighbour and de Tinguy says "Russian leaders underestimate Ukrainians' capability for resistance."

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