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Globe editorial: Russian meddling in Ukraine? When? Where?

This week, a group of Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine announced the creation of a new state: Malorossiya. They say it will be the "successor of Ukraine." The rest of the world won't be recognizing it.

The fledgling "country" is, of course, totally organic, completely spontaneous and thoroughly independent of Moscow. The fact the name is a Tsarist-era term meaning Little Russia, which once covered most of the territory of present-day Ukraine, is entirely incidental. A remarkable coincidence.

And anyone suggesting that Russian President Vladimir Putin and his regime had anything to do with this, or that over the last three years they have fostered rebellion in Ukraine, would be peddling unfounded rumours and fake news.

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Moscow has consistently claimed that the violence is eastern Ukraine is locally led and organized, and neither armed nor directed by it. The Putin regime is just an innocent bystander, taking in the news as it comes. Including, says the Kremlin, this Malorossiya business.

Elements of the Great Donetsk Proclamation of 2017 may be farcical, but there is nothing remotely funny about the three-year-old civil conflict in Ukraine. It has claimed more than 10,000 lives.

The latest immodest proposal, which is not the first of its kind, comes at a time where a French- and German-brokered peace process known as the Minsk Agreements has ground to a standstill.

Ukraine's president, Petro Poroshenko, is understandably not in an accommodating mood and has reiterated that the Donbass region remains part of Ukraine and will one day be reclaimed by it. The same goes for the Crimean peninsula, which was invaded and annexed by Russia in 2014.

Mr. Poroshenko has a staunch ally in Ottawa, and both the Harper and Trudeau governments are to be commended for taking an unambiguous stance on maintaining the integrity of Ukraine.

Canada has committed $700 million in aid to Ukraine since 2014. Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland recently announced additional funding to support democratic reforms and peace efforts. And Canada is one of the NATO countries that has sent a small number of troops to the countries immediately to Russia's West, to remind Mr. Putin not to cross any more lines.

Meanwhile, a fragile cease-fire mostly holds in Ukraine, although clashes along the boundary with the rebel areas are a regular occurrence. The recent separatist theatrics are an irritant, and the fact they have taken place as the parties are slated to return to the negotiating table should not be surprising.

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Instead of constructive discussions, we're left with a new front in a grand campaign of what Cold War hands call "dezinformatsiya."

The list dates to the Crimea invasion – featuring the 'rebel' troops in flag- and crest-less Russian army uniforms insisted they weren't from Russia – and the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 three years ago this month, which Moscow claimed was Kiev's doing. (Spoiler alert: it wasn't).

The fact is, the Kremlin has long supported Ukraine's insurgency. At times, the "rebels" have been Russian soldiers.

The situation in Ukraine rises high above the level of mischief-making and chaos-sowing digital measures that Russia is suspected of unleashing in the United States election.

Territorial aspirations only tell one part of the story, as does the not-so-covert hacking of things like the Ukrainian power grid.

Restoring Russia to its former imperial or Soviet grandeur has long been a favourite theme of Mr. Putin, as has trying to make his constituents feel like that's actually happening.

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A mere week after being deployed to Latvia as part of a NATO commitment, Canada's military contingent finds itself on the edge of a fraught situation.

Fears of an expansionist Russia are real, and have been amplified by the recent conventional forces build-up Russia has undertaken in the Baltic region.

But for all the focus on the Kremlin's recent agitations, we mustn't ignore the wider picture. Russia's internal economic problems are severe and there is political gain for its leadership in focusing attention elsewhere.

It would be a mistake to give Mr. Putin too much credit. There are no Bond villains in real life; he is not a global puppet-master pulling the strings of every global misfortune.

Instead, he leads a country and a regime relatively far weaker and less influential than the Soviet Union. That weakness is partly what drives him.

While it's never entirely certain what Mr. Putin and his proxies are up to day-to-day in Ukraine, his long-term goal has always been clear: Preventing the establishment of a stable, democratic, peaceful and independent Ukraine, right next to his own undemocratic, backward-looking regime. That's Mr. Putin's nightmare.

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