* Parliament empowers Putin to deploy troops
* Putin bitter over loss of influence in Ukraine
* President hopes Obama will not put up a fight
By Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW, March 2 Russian President Vladimir Putin
has taken a gamble on Ukraine and is betting that U.S. President
Barack Obama will blink first.
Wounded by a personal political defeat in a battle for
influence over Russia's Slavic neighbour, Putin is fighting
back, and presenting the crisis as a question of symmetry.
In his view, the West "stood by" and allowed armed men to
direct events in the capital Kiev - now he is "standing by" as
armed men extended their control over the Crimea region.
The former KGB spy blames the West for stirring passions in
Kiev, encouraging an opposition to break agreements to restore
peace and allowing what Moscow calls "extremists" and "fascists"
to dictate political developments in Ukraine.
Now authorised by parliament to deploy Russia's military in
Ukraine to protect national interests and those of Russian
citizens, Putin is taking on a West he feels has cut Moscow out
of talks on the future of Russia's Orthodox Christian brothers.
How far he will go is the big question.
While Moscow has put 150,000 troops on high alert near
Ukraine's border, it has shown no signs, yet, of sending them
and denies Ukrainian allegations it sent the protesters who have
hoisted Russian flags in some eastern towns.
Putin is saying nothing in public on Ukraine - and has not
done so since Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich was
deposed more than a week ago.
At the centre of attention as one Western leader after
another calls to urge him not to use force, he is betting the
West's response will be weak.
His calculation is that Obama has few levers at his disposal
and no appetite for war over a remote Black Sea peninsula with
symbolic and strategic value to Russia as home to a Russian
naval base, but little economic significance.
The two presidents spoke by phone for 90 minutes on
Saturday. The call appeared to have ended in a stalemate.
RECLAIMING "LOST" TERRITORY
Putin is banking on salvaging something out of a battle over
Ukraine that he appeared to have won when Yanukovich spurned
trade and political deals with the European Union in November,
but then seemed to lose when Yanukovich was ousted after three
months of protests.
"The West told Putin to get lost over Ukraine," said Sergei
Markov, a pro-Putin political analyst and director of the
Institute for Political Studies in Moscow, underlining the depth
of hurt Putin felt over Ukraine.
Accusing Western powers and international organisations of
trying to ignore Moscow in talks on financial assistance for
Kiev, Markov said: "What we are saying is that if there are any
U.N., IMF, G8 agreements without consultations with us, then we
will see them as illegitimate."
Reclaiming Crimea, a former Russian territory handed to
Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954, would win
Putin kudos among core voters and especially nationalists.
If the status quo established in the last few days holds,
with Russian forces already in charge in Crimea, he can hope to
have won back Crimea without a shot being fired in anger or the
necessity of taking on another drain to the state coffers.
Even if a pullback is forced on him, Putin will still
portray himself as the defender of national interests and those
of Russians abroad. In the eyes of many voters, he hopes, he
will not have given up Ukraine without a fight.
While he has been busy defending national interests, his
lieutenants have been lambasting the West over Ukraine, accusing
it of manipulating events and working with a government chosen
by gun-toting "extremists".
Combined with an orchestrated wave of nationalist
indignation over attempts to limit use of the Russian language
and persecute Russians in a country many consider an extension
of their own, Putin's stance plays well at home.
His insistence that Ukraine's new leaders stick to the terms
of a European Union-brokered political agreement last month with
Yanukovich goes down well.
This month, his popularity ratings have bounced back to
almost 70 percent, according to an opinion poll by independent
"Putin has not forgiven the fact that the agreement was not
fulfilled and that is one of his greatest motivations. He
considers he is acting in a symmetrical way," said Gleb
Pavlovsky, a former Kremlin spin doctor.
"I think that the authorities think it's very helpful that
people are getting themselves worked up about this... And the
majority feel in a patriotic mood about Crimea and Ukraine. I
think it's positive for the Kremlin. They won't refuse action."
Whether he takes action may still depend on the West.
Military intervention in Ukraine has higher stakes than the
war Russia fought with Georgia in 2008 - invading Ukraine's
southeast could transform Putin, a man who wanted the Sochi
Winter Olympics to show Russia's modern face, into a pariah.
If Western powers decide to try to punish Russia with
sanctions, Putin will be likely again to pursue a "symmetrical"
policy and hit back with similar moves.
This would go down well with core supporters, but might risk
unsettling the wealthy businessmen whose support helps cement
Putin's grip on power.
But there is a risk Putin could be forced into action over
Crimea by the nationalist thinking that he has let loose - and
this would be particularly risky if he were pushed into action
to defend Russian speakers in eastern Ukraine.
The decision to seek authorisation to send in troops looked
less like a prelude to war and more like a threat aimed at
getting Kiev and the West to cut a deal, Professor Mark Galeotti
from the Center of Global Affairs at New York University wrote
on his blog.
"As the language toughens and the troops roll, though, it's
getting harder to believe that common sense is going to prevail
in the Kremlin."
In broadcasts with Cold War overtones, state television has
many times repeated footage of parliament accusing Washington of
crossing a red line by warning that Moscow will face "costs" if
it intervenes in Ukraine.
It has run image after image of pro-Russian protesters
raising the Russian flag above administrative buildings in
several eastern regions, including the industrial centres of
Donetsk and Kharkiv.
The patriotic mood has caught on. For every dissenter
wondering whether this is the worst thing Russia could do since
it crushed opposition in Czechoslovakia in 1968, there are
dozens more who say the West is fomenting violence.
Near Red Square and the Defence Ministry in Moscow on
Sunday, a few hundred protesters waved banners calling for "No
War". Dozens were detained.
But their numbers could not match the thousands who turned
out for a demonstration for the "defence of the Ukrainian
people" in central Moscow.
"Fascism will not win," the protesters chanted. "Crimea is
Russia. We are for Russian unity."