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Just How Far Will the Empire Strike Back?

Throughout the crisis in eastern Ukraine, a persistent mystery has complicated efforts to resolve a standoff that has erupted into open warfare: What does Russian President Vladimir Putin want?

In the last two days, Russian troops have attempted to relieve pressure on their separatist allies in Donetsk and Luhansk by opening what amounts to a third front south of the two breakaway cities. On Wednesday, Ukrainian troops, who had been steadily advancing on separatist forces in the east, beat a hasty retreat from Novoazovsk, where they were routed by troops and armor streaming across the Russian border. Novoazovsk lies a mere 20 miles from the southeastern port city of Mariupol, a city of 500,000.

Will Putin continue the advance past Mariupol, toward Crimea -- which he annexed in March -- and potentially all the way to the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova? Or is this a mere tactic to ensure the survival of Putin's proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk?

Russia has been involved both politically and militarily in the armed uprising in Ukraine since it began in April but recent developments mark a sharp escalation in the five-month war. Russian troops are now openly fighting on Ukrainian soil, even as Moscow continues denying that it has mounted what can only be called an invasion of its neighbor.

But evidence streaming out of Russia puts the lie to that claim. Here are Russian tanks moving through eastern Ukraine.

On Thursday, NATO released satellite images showing purported evidence of Russian troops armed with sophisticated weaponry on Ukrainian soil. "Over the past two weeks we have noted a significant escalation in both the level and sophistication of Russia's military interference in Ukraine," stated Brig. Gen. Nico Tak. "The satellite images released today provide additional evidence that Russian combat soldiers, equipped with sophisticated heavy weaponry, are operating inside Ukraine's sovereign territory."

Here are Russian military units, including self-propelled artillery, moving near Krasnodon, which lies southeast of Luhansk.

So what do these moves accomplish? In the short term, the Russian moves along the southern border are likely to relieve pressure on separatists in Luhansk and Donetsk, who have been gradually ceding territory to the Ukrainian army. Andriy Lysenko, a spokesman for the Ukrainian military in Kiev, said that a Russian armored column moved south of Donetsk toward Mariupol with the aim of diverting Ukrainian forces to deal with a new threat.

The capture of Novoazovsk is strategically vital due its proximity to Russia and Crimea. Consequently, the Russian military gambit raised the possibility that Moscow's troops could continue their drive west along the Ukrainian coast, carving out a swath of territory resembling a scepter stretching from Luhansk to Odessa. Such a move would connect the Crimean peninsula with the Russian mainland and allow Russian troops to push forward into Transnistria in Moldova, another Russian-backed breakaway state.

The map below, put together by Swedish defense researchers in April, outlines in white dashes what that area might look like.

Beginning with Moscow's decision to seize Crimea and later with its decision to foment unrest in eastern Ukraine, there has been element of unpredictability to Russian actions. Even as many observers have argued that Russian actions represent an effort to regain territory lost when the Soviet Union crumbled, there has been no clear evidence that Putin has made a decision to seize a large chunk of territory in eastern Ukraine and potentially find himself in a major land war.

"Putin has been throughout this crisis a bit of a gambler," said Jonathan Eyal, the international director at the Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank. "We underestimate the element of improvisation within the Russian decision-making in this crisis."

According to this line of thinking, it is imperative that Putin not be presented with any further opportunities to expand the territory under his control. If his forces are able to easily consolidate control of Mariupol and its environs, Russian troops may very well continue their drive along the Ukrainian coast, perhaps all the way to Transnistria.

Regardless of whether Putin expands the offensive, the Russian leader in the meantime achieves his short-term goal of propping up the separatists he backs. "He wants a failed, destroyed Ukrainian state and to prevent Ukraine from falling in the Western sphere of influence," Eyal said. "The strategy is to not have a strategy."

With NATO estimates putting the total number of Russian troops in Ukraine at about 1,000 and Ukrainian officials saying that two columns of tanks and military vehicles moved into southeastern Ukraine from Russia on Thursday, Moscow's forces lack the equipment and troops to mount a broader campaign toward Transnistria. According to Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and the director of the Arms Control and Non-Proliferation Initiative at the Brookings Institution, Russia would need on the order of 50,000 to 80,000 troops just to occupy the city of Luhansk or Donetsk. To carve out a corridor from Luhansk to Donetsk would require a vastly larger number and would place Russian troops in areas where they are likely to receive a hostile reception by the local population.

In response to the incursion, Ukrainian commanders said they have regrouped around Mariupol to more effectively defend the city. And in Kiev, Ukrainian officials said that they will reinstate mandatory military conscription.

Meanwhile in Washington, President Barack Obama said that Western nations may tighten sanctions against Moscow. "My expectation is we will take additional steps primarily because we have not seen any meaningful action on the part of Russia to try to resolve this in a diplomatic fashion," he said during a White House press conference. "The sanctions that we've already applied have been effective."

But whether Western sanctions have an effect is perhaps less important than how Ukrainian troops around Mariupol perform in the face of Russian attacks.

IVAN SEKRETAREV/AFP/Getty Images

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North Korea, Wrestling, and Rodman-Free Diplomacy

More than a dozen pro athletes are converging on Pyongyang this week for a sports extravaganza being billed as "The International Pro-Wrestling Festival." Participants include Bob "the Beast" Sapp, a former American pro football player who became a celebrity in Japan as a mixed martial artist; American rapper Pras Michel, a founding member of the band The Fugees, is attending as a spectator. Leading the trip is Antonio Inoki, a colorful 71-year-old ex-pro-wrestler-turned-politician.  

This is the second wave of major athletes to visit North Korea since Kim Jong Un took power in December 2011 --  and will almost certainly prove to be a more sober affair the first wave:  ex-NBA star Dennis Rodman's three trips to the country, most recently in January. Rodman's trips -- especially the first, which the media company Vice organized for February 2013-- were about the spectacle of America's battiest athlete (along with other basketball players) visiting the world's most-repressive country. Any news that came out of those trips -- about Kim's baby daughter, and about Kim's desire to talk with Obama -- was subsumed by the absurdity of the bromance formed between Rodman and Kim.

Inoki's trip, by contrast, could actually prove fruitful. For one, Inoki is a legitimate actor in Tokyo. A member of parliament, Inoki's trip actually aims to improve relations between North Korea and Japan and comes shortly after Inoki led a group of Japanese lawmakers to Pyongyang. Inoki, who has been to North Korea roughly 30 times, has far more experience negotiating with the country than Rodman.

Perhaps more importantly, North Korea's relationship with Japan is far less complicated than its relationship with the United States. Pyongyang believes the United States wants to destroy North Korea; but does not seem to see Japan as an existential threat. And although the United States wants North Korea to denuclearize -- a highly unlikely outcome -- Tokyo's ask is much simpler: it wants to know about the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and 1980s. The fate of the abductees, who may number in the dozens or even hundreds, is a huge issue in Japan -- far more important, comparatively, than the fate of the three Americans detained in North Korea.

Famously, Inoki is no stranger to hostage issues. In 1990, "he helped secure the release of 41 Japanese hostages in Iraq during the Gulf War after meeting Saddam Hussein's son and staging a wrestling show in Baghdad," according to AFP.

So will this trip have any effect? In May, Pyongyang agreed to re-investigate what happened to the Japanese hostages; Pyongyang will probably reveal  the results of the probe in September. If Tokyo likes what it sees, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could make a path-breaking trip to Pyongyang; with Inoki able to take credit for smoothing out the road.

The United States might get something out of it too: Michel is friends with President Barack Obama, although he told Reuters that Obama may not know he is visiting Pyongyang, Michel would be a far more trustworthy interlocutor than Rodman.