I wish I had a better grasp of what is really going on in the mind of Vladimir Putin, because things could really get nasty in a hurry and he’s behaving with extreme bellicosity.

KIEV, Ukraine — Russia’s military staged a provocative new act of aggression on Saturday, occupying a gas-pumping station and village on a narrow strip of Ukrainian land near the Crimean Peninsula and prompting Kiev’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs to denounce “a military invasion by Russia.”

The incident marked a fresh escalation in already-high tensions as well as the first face-to-face standoff between the Ukrainian and Russian militaries outside the Crimean Peninsula, suggesting Moscow is testing the will of Kiev amid fears of further Russian incursions in eastern and southern Ukraine. The move comes on the eve of a vote in Crimea on whether the residents of the peninsula want to break away from Ukraine and join Russia.

A force of Russian troops in four helicopter gunships and three armored combat vehicles descended on a pumping station near the village of Strilkove around 1:30 p.m. local time, according to Ukrainian officials.

The Russians said they had seized the pumping station out of fears it would be targeted by “terrorists,” according to a Ukrainian Defense Ministry official who declined to be named.

The threat of terrorism is a catch-all excuse that can justify anything. I’m still suspicious about the 1999 Russian apartment bombings that many think were false flag operations used to justify the Second Chechen War. Of course, I have no proof of that, but neither does Putin have any proof that some gas-pumping station in Ukraine was about to be assaulted by terrorists.

I can kind of understand using the coup in Kiev as a pretext to annex the Crimea, but slicing off part of Ukraine seems like more trouble than it could possibly be worth. What is Putin up to?

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Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com