A spokesman for President Obama couldn't identify a U.S. national security interest in Ukraine, emphasizing an American desire to support human rights rather than a "old Cold War" rivalry with Russia.

"This is something that we're monitoring," White House deputy press secretary Josh Earnest said when asked if the Kiev protests impact U.S. national security. "This idea of 'spheres of influence' is a pretty outdated notion," he added when pressed about Russia's interest in Ukraine.

"Our principal concern here does not lie in whether or not [Russian President] Vladimir Putin stands to gain or lose from the ongoing conflict in Ukraine," he reiterated later in the press briefing.

Frida Ghitis explained the context for the Kiev protests in a Thursday column. "Protesters were incensed by what they saw, quite correctly, as acquiescence to Russian bullying," Ghitis wrote on CNN's website. "In August, when Ukrainian officials were negotiating the EU's Eastern Partnership agreement, Moscow made it clear it would not tolerate a turn to the West. Russia, Ukraine's principal trading partner, suddenly imposed crippling sanctions against Ukrainian imports. Putin's top economic adviser explained it as 'preventive measures' in case Ukraine decided to 'take the suicidal step' of signing an agreement with the EU."

Ghitis recalled that Putin referred to Ukraine, a vassal state to Moscow under the Soviet Union, as "Little Russia" in 2009.

"The Russian leadership is very apprehensive about what it sees as Western moves designed to tear Ukraine away from Russia," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, told Time to explain the significance of Putin's remark. "Their central foreign policy goal is to create a power center around Russia. Any move by the West towards the former Soviet republics is seen as damaging Russia's interests."

Earnest rejected any Cold War-era categories. "It is not necessarily related to any effort by former Cold War adversaries to try to get a foothold in one country or another," he said. Instead, Earnest explained U.S. interest by saying that "at least some of the human rights, basic human rights that we hold so dear in this country are not being respected."

He also said that the current struggle in Ukraine "is not the result of differing perspectives [in] Ukraine between the United States and Russia."

Asked if it would be appropriate for Russia to send a diplomat to Ukraine, Earnest refused to say "anything specific about an individual, an emissary from the Putin administration," going to the country.