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Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, speaks to students at the University of California Los Angeles campus on the subject of leadership Wednesday, March 5, 2014, in Los Angeles.Nick Ut/The Associated Press

Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton played it safe in a speech to a packed concert hall in Vancouver on Wednesday night, staying away from earlier comments comparing Russian President Vladimir Putin's behaviour to that of Adolph Hitler in the 1930s.

Instead, she described the deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych as a weak leader who she had met as recently as the fall, a man in a long line of corrupted politicians in the region. She said her experience with him was of a man who was sometimes helpful and one who appeared to value diplomacy.

So Yanukovych's decision not to sign a trade pact that represented a path to EU membership was unexpected, Clinton told the sold-out crowd of mostly women.

"It surprised everyone when he chose to be closer to Russia," said the woman who leads polls of potential Democratic presidential nominees, though she has not said whether she'll run in 2016.

The decision touched off the current crisis which has seen Putin move troops into Ukraine and declaring that he would do whatever it takes, including wider military intervention, to bring Ukraine or parts of it under Russian influence or control.

But Clinton's comments to the adoring crowd Wednesday in Vancouver were vastly more muted than her remarks in California the day before, when she was reported to have told a fundraising luncheon in Long Beach that Putin's actions and comments were reminiscent of Hitler's in the 1930s.

Putin has said Russia's move into Crimea is to protect ethnic Russians. Clinton was quoted by the Press-Telegram of Long Beach, Calif., as saying: "Now if this sounds familiar, it's what Hitler did back in the '30s."

Clinton softened her remarks when asked about it Wednesday during an afternoon speech at the University of California, Los Angeles, saying she was not making a comparison.

"I just want everybody to have a little historic perspective. . . I am recommending that we perhaps can learn from this tactic that has been used before."

In Vancouver, she described the situation in the Ukraine as "deeply distressing," especially after Europe had "overcome the horrors of the 20th century to unify around free markets," while turning its back on aggression and force.

The diplomatic efforts underway now to diffuse the situation, she said, "are going to be difficult."

Clinton spoke for just under an hour on a theme of encouraging more women to get into politics, noting when women are involved, change happens.

But she said women need to be brave and be prepared for scrutiny. She noted some of the best advice for her was from an Eleanor Roosevelt quote: "Grow skin like a rhinocerous."

She said women need to learn to overcome their insecurities, learn to take criticism and then reach for the opportunity to make a difference.

Following her speech, Clinton sat down for a conversation with Frank McKenna, a former Canadian ambassador to the United States. She was asked about the Keystone XL pipeline, but refused to comment.

When McKenna asked her what could be done about the deep divide in U.S. politics, Clinton responded that everyone needs to take responsibility for the gridlock.

"As a citizen, don't vote for people who won't compromise," she said. "And don't give them money."

McKenna closed the evening by noting Clinton's enormous support as the next Democratic presidential nominee.

But he didn't ask her if she'd run for president.