By Elizabeth Piper
MOSCOW, March 6 (Reuters) - Almost certainly orchestrated by Vladimir Putin, Crimea’s appeal to join Russia pits the president directly against the West in a standoff that has increasingly high stakes and unpredictable consequences.
The vote by the Crimean parliament gives Putin the upper hand in the crisis over Ukraine, but risks antagonising the pro-Western leaders in Kiev who have refused until now to resort to military action and increase tensions in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking south and east.
“We are at a very dangerous point, and it threatens to push a political crisis in the direction of a military situation,” said former Kremlin spin doctor Gleb Pavlovsky.
He said there was now a greater danger of shots being fired in Crimea, a Ukrainian region with an ethnic Russian majority, adding: “Russia is encouraging the action of ‘local forces’.”
Putin has in effect thrown back in Western diplomats’ faces their argument that the ouster of Moscow-backed Viktor Yanukovich as Ukraine’s president on Feb. 22 must be accepted because his removal was the will of the people.
Now they will have to accept the will of the Crimean people.
The former KGB spy looked serene as he chaired a meeting of his most senior officials in the Security Council on Thursday, seemingly oblivious to turmoil on Russian markets and Kiev’s defiance that a referendum on Crimea’s status would be illegal.
The 61-year-old appears to feel he holds all the cards.
After appealing for membership of the Russian Federation, Crimea’s pro-Russian leaders, installed after Russian-speaking armed men took over the local parliament, said they would have to wait for Putin’s answer to hold a referendum on status.
They plan to hold the referendum on March 16, asking Crimea’s just over 2 million people whether they want to unite with Russia or stay with Ukraine.
Moscow’s move to get a tighter grip on Crimea has been perfectly choreographed over the last few days.
Calls to help Russian-speaking citizens in Ukraine’s southeast defend themselves against “extremists” from western Ukraine, accused of trying to rid the country of Russians, have given way to draft laws speeding up citizenship requests from native Russian speakers.
Twinned with legislation to simplify the procedure for “parts of foreign states” to join the Russian Federation, this leaves Moscow better positioned to take control of a strip of land Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev handed to Kiev in 1954.
“Speaking plainly, this bill was introduced by me for the sake of Crimea,” said Sergei Mironov, author of the bill.
It was a fitting prelude to news that Crimea’s parliament had voted unanimously “to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation”.
The deputy prime minister of Crimea, home to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet base in the port city of Sevastopol, also said the Russian military was the only legitimate force in the region.
Many Russian analysts doubt that Putin wants to annexe Crimea, but say he may consider the threat of doing so a “symmetrical response” to what he sees as Western support for armed men he says have been directing events in Kiev.
It asserts his authority once more and keeps alive his dream of creating an economic union to reunite at least part of the Soviet Union and recoup what Putin calls the lost potential of the region when the Soviet empire collapsed 20 years ago.
With only Kazakhstan and Belarus signed up so far for a Russia-led customs union, the loss of Ukraine could kill the idea.
But it is a risky strategy.
Washington quickly responded by saying it would slap visa bans on both Russian and Ukrainian officials responsible for undermining democratic institutions in Ukraine. EU officials, meeting in Brussels, were sure to react strongly.
Russia’s markets again tumbled, putting pressure on an already fragile economy where rouble weakness has made many Russians feel the pinch when buying imported food and clothes. Moody’s said the stand-off was negative for Russia’s sovereign creditworthiness.
The gap in understanding between East and West over what happened in Ukraine is, if anything, getting wider.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov left talks with foreign ministers from the United States, France, Germany and Britain on Wednesday, saying their attempts to get institutions like the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe and the NATO military alliance involved was not building trust.
He, and most leading Russian officials, have said all sides should return to an EU-brokered agreement signed on Feb. 21, which called for constitutional change - something they hope could mean more autonomy for the Russian-speaking regions.
Western leaders have given no suggestion that they see that document, which was signed by Yanukovich shortly before he fled, as the basis for any agreement.
“We are at a very dangerous point, and it threatens the development of a political crisis in the direction of a military situation,” said Pavlovsky, suggesting shots could be fired by Russian or Ukrainian troops in a tense standoff in Crimea.
“This decision will without a doubt be popular in Russia, but it could even tomorrow become a tactical advantage.”