(Adds comments from general, background)
OTTAWA, May 5 (Reuters) - NATO's top military commander on Monday said he did not think regular Russian troops would enter eastern Ukraine, predicting that Moscow could achieve its goals through other means.
General Philip Breedlove also said that while he was sure Russian special forces were in Ukraine, it was too early to say whether they had been firing missiles at Ukrainian helicopters. At least three helicopters have been shot down in the last week.
Russia has massed thousands of troops on its border with eastern Ukraine, prompting fears that Moscow might send in ground forces to protect the rights of Russian-speakers.
Breedlove said that until a week ago he thought the most likely Russian military response would be to send in troops to southern Ukraine and secure a land bridge to the peninsula of Crimea - which voted in March to join Russia - before possibly pushing on toward the Black Sea port of Odessa.
"Today I would tell you I don't think that's the most likely course of action ... I think now that (President) Putin may be able to accomplish his objectives in eastern Ukraine and never go across the border with his forces," Breedlove told a defense conference in the Canadian capital Ottawa.
The general said special Russian forces in eastern Ukraine were fomenting unrest and said Moscow had the ability to keep the country off-balance.
"Now I think probably the most likely course of action is that he (Putin) will continue doing what he's doing, discrediting the (Ukrainian government), creating unrest, trying to set the stage for a separatist movement" to ensure Moscow maintained a hold on eastern Ukraine, Breedlove added. (Reporting by Randall Palmer, writing by David Ljunggren; Editing by Diane Craft)