The Russian president has yet to address his nation, so the full calculus behind Moscow's stunning weekend decision to assert its right to use military force "on the territory of Ukraine" remains a matter of guesswork.
But judging from officials' public comments and interviews with Kremlin-connected analysts, it appears that Russia sees itself as acting defensively to protect fellow Russians in Crimea, and possibly Russian-speakers in other parts of eastern Ukraine. The threat, in their eyes: a Western-inspired "coup d'état" in Kiev, which brought an illegitimate, minority-backed, and anti-Russian government to power in Ukraine.
Ukraine is not only one of Russia's closest neighbors and trade partners, but also a land whose eastern half was part of Moscow-led states for over 300 years. The vast majority of its people speak Russian, have myriad economic connections with Russia, attend the Russian Orthodox Church, share a Russian cultural heritage, get their information from Russian media, and look to Moscow to protect their interests.
But the new nationalist government, which was immediately recognized by most Western countries, has destabilized and potentially split the country of 46 million, say Russian analysts. So Moscow had little choice but to take some sort of strong action, says Gleb Pavlovsky, a onetime close adviser to Mr. Putin who has since become a critic of Kremlin policies.
"Who can say what is legal in Ukraine today?" after revolutionaries representing one-half of the country – the nationalist west – seized power from a legally elected government using pressure from the streets, and began pushing through their own narrow agenda, Mr. Pavlovsky says.
"Obviously the sudden appearance of a government that had no representation from the east of the country triggered a wave of panic around Ukraine's south and east. In my opinion, Russia should not have intervened, but it still had to put pressure on Kiev, it had to do something," he adds.
Responsibility to protect?
Some pro-Kremlin media commentators are even citing R2P [Responsibility to Protect], a recent Western concept – adamantly opposed by official Moscow in the past – which postulates that big powers have a duty to intervene in cases where populations are endangered, because humanitarian concerns should trump national sovereignty.
Russian military forces are so far confined to the majority-Russian autonomous republic of Crimea where, over the past week, they have ensured that a solidly pro-Moscow local government is in place; Ukrainian forces are either besieged or persuaded to change sides; and the borders, airports, rail links, and administrative buildings are all under tight guard by Russian troops.
There have been reports that Russia has issued ultimatums to Ukrainian bases and warships to disarm, but the Russian defense ministry called the reports nonsense.
"Russia does not want a war with Ukraine," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Grigory Karasin told a Russian TV station Monday. "I am absolutely positive that no one in Russia wants a war."
Contrary to Western news reports, Putin has not yet made use of the authorization to use force, Andrei Klimov, deputy chair of the Duma's international affairs committee, told the Kremlin-funded RT network in an extensive interview Monday. The authorization had been unanimously passed by the Russian parliament on Saturday.
According to Mr. Klimov, the Russian troops seen on TV screens patrolling and guarding buildings in Crimean cities do not yet exceed the limits of the Kharkov Agreement, under which Russia is entitled to base about 25,000 military personnel at its naval base in Sevastopol.
"We know that there is a real civil war now on Ukrainian territory, we know well that there are a lot of people, thousands and thousands of people with weapons, whom we do not know and who are not the part of the official military forces of Ukraine," Klimov said. "To protect our military ships, our military base – even missiles, what we have there in Crimea – we have to be sure that we're really able to do that even in case if they open fire."
But other analysts point out that, regardless of whether Russia has overstepped its legal troop limits in Crimea, it has certainly gone way beyond the terms of the accord with Ukraine by effectively putting the Crimean republic under firm control from Moscow.
"Of course the introduction of Russian troops into Crimea lacks any legitimacy," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "The world doesn't agree that you should be able to send the military into a country just because a president is overthrown."
Preventing a Moscow Maidan
Another strand in the Russian narrative is the firm Kremlin belief that the West not only cheered, but also aided and abetted pro-European protesters in their confrontation with legally elected Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, leading to his downfall.
"We see that there was a plan, approved in the West, to impose an irreversible change on Ukraine. We have always agreed that Ukraine is 'not Russia,' but the goal here was to make it anti-Russia," says Sergei Markov, a frequent Kremlin adviser, reached by phone in Crimea on Monday.
"We think the ultimate goal is to establish power in Kiev, force Ukraine [into the Western camp], and then foment a Maidan-style revolution in Moscow to overthrow Putin," he says.
A poll carried out by the independent Levada Center in Moscow in late February found that a majority of Russians are primed to view Ukrainian events from the Kremlin's perspective. According to the survey, 43 percent saw the Kiev upsurge as a "coup d'état" and another 23 percent thought it was a "civil war." Far fewer responders identified the events as a "national uprising" or protests against government corruption. Nearly half of respondents blamed the "influence of the West, pursuing its own interests" for the unrest, while another third put it down to "nationalist moods."
The Russian media, which loves to decry Western "double standards," has had a bit of a field day with US Secretary of State John Kerry's jab at Russian behavior, made on NBC's Meet the Press Sunday, that "you just don’t invade another country on phony pretext in order to assert your interests.... It’s really 19th century behavior in the 21st century."
But some Russians do worry about the price they may be compelled to pay down the road in terms of economic sanctions, diplomatic penalties, and perhaps even a return to full-scale cold war isolation.
Russia's currency hit all-time lows on Monday, and the Moscow stock market plummeted, in part due to worries over the global reaction to Russian moves in Ukraine. Canada withdrew its ambassador from Moscow, and several countries said they will boycott the June Group of Eight meeting that was to be hosted by Russia in Sochi.
But pro-Kremlin experts argue that Russia, which has nearly $500 billion in foreign currency reserves, can weather the economic storm, and that any sharp diplomatic gestures are likely to be short-lived.
Alexei Pushkov, head of the State Duma's international affairs committee, likened it to the wave of international condemnation that followed Russia's 2008 war with Georgia.
"The 28 countries that comprise NATO are far from being the whole world community," Interfax agency quoted him as saying on Monday. "Western countries will not succeed in setting up some kind of cordon around Russia now," any more than they did in the past when calls for Russia's isolation were made over Abkhazia and South Ossetia, he added.