The Russian-engineered Crimean parliament voted today to move forward a referendum on greater autonomy from Kiev. But instead of just calling for wider local powers, the new poll, to be held on March 16, will ask the question "Are you in favor of Crimea becoming a constituent territory of the Russian Federation?"
The parliamentarians seem confident of a "yes" vote – they "unanimously" passed a resolution announcing Crimea's intention to join Russia, and declared the Ukrainian forces still in Crimean territory to be an "occupation force" who must leave or surrender.
Analysts say it's inconceivable that such a decision could have been taken without a green light from Moscow. The Russian parliament is already preparing to pass a new law as early as next week that would "simplify procedures" for an outside territory to join the Russian Federation, according to the official ITAR-Tass agency.
Some experts suggest that Mr. Putin, offended by talk in the West that likens him to Saddam Hussein and even Adolf Hitler, has decided to raise the political stakes. But they also suggest that the Kremlin may just want to demonstrate to Ukraine and the West that it commands the Crimean people's loyalty, and is unlikely to actually take the potentially world-shaking step of incorporating the little territory into Russia.
"Just because they ask to join Russia, doesn't mean Putin has to agree. He's keeping his options open," says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist for the Moscow daily Kommersant. "It's a signal. Putin isn't being inconsistent. What he said still applies, he just wants a bargaining chip in what's getting to be a very tough game."
Mr. Strokan says Crimea would best serve Russian interests by remaining nominally within Ukraine while being under de facto Russian control. Perpetually thorny issues like the status of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, based in Sevastopol, could be greatly simplified for Moscow if they fell under the authority of a local pro-Russian government in Crimea.
Pro-Kremlin analysts in Moscow blamed the new authorities in Kiev for aggravating the situation by denouncing the recent Russian-orchestrated change of power in Crimea as a "coup" and threatening to arrest the region's secessionist leaders.
"The Kiev leaders brought this on themselves by showing absolute intolerance for the wishes of the Crimean people, calling the government 'usurpers,' and so on," says Konstantin Zatulin, director of the Kremlin-funded Institute of the Commonwealth of Independent States in Moscow. "Of course that radicalized the situation. The people in Crimea decided to talk frankly, calling a spade a spade."
The move comes at a moment when tensions had seemed to be abating. In an interview with the Associated Press on Wednesday, interim Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk insisted that "Crimea will remain in Ukraine," but also pronounced the new government willing to renegotiate the terms of its autonomy. He told the EU Thursday that the Crimean referendum is illegal, and that Russian troops on the peninsula should "pull back to their barracks."
But Putin, who recently presided over the successful Sochi Winter Games, may have been shocked by the outpouring of condemnation in the West over what he regards as a limited "police action" in a zone of traditional Russian interest.
"I think Putin is truly offended by the threats of sanctions, and people talking about him as if he were some dictator," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow-based foreign policy journal. "Putin's angry at what he perceives as Western unwillingness to even listen to his arguments. So, he's reacting to that."
One possible way out is suggested by the Crimean parliament's resolution. Deputies voted to include a second question on the referendum, asking whether Crimea should "return to its 1992 Constitution." That charter, written amid the turmoil following the collapse of the Soviet Union, declared Crimea to be an independent state within Ukraine. It was rescinded after threats from Kiev, and replaced with one that defined Crimea as an autonomous republic with some local powers but subordinate to Ukraine's central government.
"Putin's idea probably hasn't changed," says Strokan. "Joining Crimea to Russia would be nothing but trouble, and the Kremlin knows it. On the other hand, a Russian-controlled Crimea inside Ukraine, will be an endless source of leverage for Moscow over Kiev. So why give that up?"