Putin walks the walk over Ukraine but not as Obama wants

MOSCOW (REUTERS) - Vladimir Putin has walked the walk since the West imposed new sanctions on Russia over the Ukraine crisis, but not in the way Barack Obama intended.

Announcing sanctions against Russian companies and individuals this week, the US president used the phrase in urging the Kremlin leader to do more than just talk the talk when it comes to finding a diplomatic solution to the standoff.

In a move that seemed designed to mock Obama's choice of words, state television lingered on Putin striding with knowing confidence across a vast hall to deliver his verdict on the sanctions to reporters during a visit to neighbouring Belarus.

Completely unruffled, Putin denied US charges that Russian troops are in Ukraine, blamed the crisis on the West and ratcheted up the war of words by warning that Moscow could bar some Western companies from involvement in Russia's economy.

"It was handing out those pies on the Maidan that paved the way to the crisis," he said, referring to a visit in which US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland offered food to anti-government protesters on Kiev's main square in December.

There is no overt sign that the asset freezes and travel bans imposed by the United States and European Union, reinforced by moves by Japan and Canada, are having any effect on Putin.

And Western Kremlin watchers remain deeply uneasy about forecasting just what the president might do next in Ukraine.

He may think he has little reason to be the one to blink first; although the annexation of the Crimea peninsula and the massing of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine have left East-West relations more tense than at any time since the Cold War, Putin's popularity has soared in Russia.

A poll on Wednesday showed 82 per cent of Russians support the former KGB spy's actions, his highest rating since 2010.

The sanctions were considered so mild in Russia that share prices rose in Moscow when they were announced. Moscow also regards the European Union and the United States as divided over how to handle the crisis, largely because the EU is heavily dependent on Russian oil and gas and has more trade with Moscow.