Ukraine crisis: What is Putin's next move?

A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of the Donetsk region in Donetsk on 11 May 2014 Image copyright Reuters

Just four days ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin was calling on opponents of Kiev in eastern Ukraine to postpone their referendums on self-determination.

On Monday, the Kremlin was describing Sunday's votes in Donetsk and Luhansk regions as "the will of the people" and making it clear that Russia would respect the results.

No mention at all of the absence of international observers during the polls, the lack of up-to-date voting lists or the highly confusing question on the ballot papers.

Despite President Putin's suggestion that the polling be postponed, Moscow's sympathy for pro-Russia groups in eastern Ukraine has never been in doubt.

You only have to watch Russian television's coverage of the Ukraine crisis to see that (state TV's news channel has wall-to-wall positive coverage on Monday of the "People's Referendums").

On Sunday, one polling station even opened in Moscow for Ukrainian expats.

This support sends a message to the Kremlin's opponents: the Ukrainian authorities may dismiss the referendums as a '"farce" with "no legal weight"; Western politicians may claim the plebiscites have "zero credibility".

But Russia is still backing those who seek greater autonomy, or even independence, from Kiev. As long as that continues, Kiev will struggle to restore its authority in parts of eastern Ukraine.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption A local official shows the results of the referendum in Luhansk

Sphere of influence

But will that continue? What is President Putin's end game?

According to Monday's edition of the Russian broadsheet Vedomosti, that is far from clear.

"Putin keeps his opponents in a state of constant tension, striking at them when and where he chooses," the paper writes.

"He shows flexibility and, when necessary, a tough streak. But [on Ukraine], he has no strategy... he just reacts to events."

If that is the case, it makes it difficult to predict the Kremlin's next move.

Monday's Kremlin statement on the referendums provides few clues.

It is brief, calls for "dialogue" and peaceful "implementation" of the results of the vote.

The Kremlin may lack a strategy. But I would argue its objectives are clear: to retain influence in at least part of Ukraine, to ensure that not all of Ukraine embraces the European Union or - Russia's biggest nightmare - Nato.

That is why Moscow may consider that weak central government in Kiev and continued instability in eastern Ukraine work in its favour.

On Russian TV on Monday, a prominent pro-Russia Ukrainian politician called for Donetsk and Luhansk, and other regions of eastern and southern Ukraine to form an independent state called Novorossiya (New Russia).

Such a "state" would inevitably be loyal to Moscow.

So, is Novorossiya part of the Kremlin's long-term plan to retain influence in a large part of Ukraine? Could that involve Russian military assistance for those in conflict with Kiev?

Or does Moscow's shorter-term strategy have more to do with derailing the upcoming presidential elections in Ukraine?

By preventing the vote taking place in large parts of the east, it might hope to delegitimise the new president, a figure likely to be pro-Western.

Or is there no firm plan, just a readiness in Moscow to react to events on the ground?

With less than two weeks to go before Ukraine's presidential elections, if it does have a plan, the Kremlin may soon reveal it.