Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeking to profit to the maximum from Ukraine's turmoil by implementing the de-facto annexation of Crimea at high speed to wrong foot an indecisive West, analysts said.
The ousting of the generally pro-Russian Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was a major defeat for Putin and means that the ex-Soviet state is now swiftly aligning itself with the European Union in a historic switch away from the Kremlin.
But with Ukraine in chaos under its new pro-Western authorities, Putin is moving to seize Crimea, a region that most Russians believe only ended up in post-USSR Ukraine because of a catastrophic mistake by Nikita Khrushchev to make it part of the Soviet republic of Ukraine.
The Crimean parliament said Thursday it was asking Putin if Crimea could become part of Russia and would put the issue to the people in a hastily brought forward referendum on March 16.
Russia's parliament is meanwhile already preparing a bill to ease the process for incorporating part of a foreign state into Russia.
While the initial move has come from the Crimean parliament, few doubt this is a plan by Putin drawn up at breathtaking speed so that Russia can gain some historical profit from the Ukraine crisis.
It is move entirely in character for a strongman leader who famously declared the collapse of the Soviet Union to be the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the twentieth century.
The swoop is unlikely to meet with much opposition in Russian society which remains a hotbed of patriotism and often nostalgic for the projection of Moscow power seen in the Soviet era.
- What is Putin's aim? -
Putin -- who has always sought to promote Russia's status as a great power in any situation like the Syria conflict -- wants to show the West that the Kremlin will not leave events like the Ukraine uprising without reaction.
"Putin has decided to show that he does not fear the West or sanctions. He has decided to put the West in front of a fait accompli to show his decisiveness," said leading Russian defence commentator Pavel Felgenhauer.
"Putin cannot and does not want to take a step backwards, especially as the propaganda campaign in Russia has been ratcheted up so much."
Alexei Makarkin of the Centre for Political Technology in Moscow said: "The situation is changing fast –- what yesterday seemed unthinkable now becomes reality."
- How far will Putin go? -
A big question is whether Russia limits itself to just Crimea or also makes a move on eastern Ukraine, which also has Russian-speakers who consider themselves loyal to the Kremlin.
"He is saying that Crimea is ours. Russia is not going to enter the territory of the rest of Ukraine, in as much as Crimea is going to become Russian territory," Makarkin said.
"He is saying give us Crimea and we will not touch the rest. It's not going to work (annexing) the east, it would be too dangerous."
But Nikolai Petrov, professor at the Higher School of Economics, said the idea of moving into the east of Ukraine was still very much on the table.
"Putin wants to consolidate his success and set out the positions for negotiations –- guaranteed inclusion of Crimea into Russia and control over eastern Ukraine."
- What are the risks? -
Russia faces unprecedented post-Cold War isolation, sanctions as well as risks to its already fragile economy, with the ruble slumping again on Thursday.
Traditional alliances may be endangered. China, worried about separatism in the Xinjiang region, may not be impressed by such radical moves. Kazakhstan will fret about being lumped with Russia in a Customs Union at such dangerous times.
"Russia is going to be in isolation at the UN. Ukraine will not acknowledge the annexation of Crimea and it is possible relations will be cut off," said Makarkin.
Meanwhile Felgenhauer said Russia's annexation of Crimea may not prove to be the walk in the park that Russia appears to expect, especially with Crimea's Tatar population traditionally loyal to Kiev and hostile to Russian domination.
"A partisan war could start in Crimea," he said.
Copyright (2014) AFP. All rights reserved.