Predicting Vladimir Putin's next move has been always difficult, but a rational thinker would think that the commander-in-chief of the Russian armed forces won't officially dispatch troops to Crime or Eastern Ukraine just yet, even though the Federation Council (Russia's senate) has allowed him to do so.
The fact that Putin has taken calls from the U.S. president, UN chief and French president, indicates that he has not made a decision to officially deploy forces into Ukraine just yet. Hopes still linger that all of unofficial deployments in Crimea and the saber-rattling in Moscow is just a game of brinkmanship played in hopes of s staring Ukraine's victorious opposition down, forcing its leaders to strike a deal that would ideally keep Ukraine out of West.
So far, leaders of Ukraine's victorious opposition have not lost their cool, if only because know they cannot really hope to prevail militarily. Yes, they have appealed to EU, US and NATO for protection and ordered a general mobilization in Ukraine, but the reality is that NATO is going to fight a war with Russia over Ukraine. As for the Ukrainian armed forces, they are not only inferior to Russia, but some parts of its are plain unwilling to obey orders of the new government, as evidenced by the decision of the newly-appointed chief of the Ukrainian Navy to pledge allegiance to the people of Crimea. And, of course, a forceful response by Kiev is what Moscow might be hoping for in Crimea. Should the Ukrainian forces try, for instance, to liberate the border guard facilities seized in Crimea, Putin would respond with flooding the peninsular with Russian troops, claiming that violence eaves him with no choice, but to intervene to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine. The same scenario can materialize in those provinces of Eastern Ukraine where protesters seized administration buildings, decorating them with Russian flags.
But while leaders of of Ukraine's victorious opposition are unwilling to challenge Russia militarily, they are not willing to back down either. And the longer the stand-off continues, the less allies Putin can count for as evidenced by the following:
Even ex-president Leonid Kuchma, who could be considered to be 'least anti-Russian' of Yanukovych's predecessors, joined other ex-presidents to call for denunciation of the Black Sea Fleet lease agreement. As for Viktor Yanukovych, the very fact that he has fled Ukraine for Russia proves he can no longer aspire to re-assume his presidential duties even though there are legitimate doubts about the way that he was stripped of these duties.
Some of the eastern oligarchs – that do business with Russia – have accepted offers from Ukraine's interim government to to become governors of their home provinces.
Yulia Tymoshenko – who signed off on a deal to buy gas from Russia for exorbitant prices while still a PM and whom Putin praised while she was still in prison in December, has decided not to travel to Moscow for talks.
I should note that the Russian leaders have not exactly thought their talking points through. Otherwise, they would not be insisting that the victorious opposition's leaders honor the Feb. 21 2014 deal with Yanukovych, which Russia co-brokered with 3 EU members, but refused to sign, while at the same time ignoring pleas to at least discuss the 1994 Budapest Memorandum. Russia did sign this memorandum along with US and UK to commit to honoring Ukraine's territorial integrity and to refraining from use of force against it, unless it is done in self-defense.
The other signatories of the memorandum have already joined with their forces with their NATO allies to promise Putin that there will be consequences, including isolation, for Russia if it doesn't deescalate in Crimea.
Western countries' position on this issue and the stubbornness of the Ukrainian opposition are probably the exact opposite of Putin was expecting when he reacted forcefully to the initial short-sighted moves by Ukraine's victorious opposition that antagonized population of Eastern Ukraine and Crimea, such as cancellation of the status of the Russian language and threats of lustration.
I think Putin's current Ukraine policy is flawed and these flaws may become impossible to correct unless he eventually strikes a deal with Ukraine's victorious opposition on condition that its leaders honor Russia's interests vis-a-vis Ukraine, some of which I have outlined here and which include Ukraine's military neutrality and rights of ethnic Russians in Ukraine.
If the sanctions — that Western countries have vowed to impose on Russia — are in place and start to bite, parts of the Russian elite will start having doubts about Russia's Ukraine policy is beneficial . And the Russian economy, which is already in stagnation, may enter a period of protracted decline under these sanctions.
As a result Putin might end up in a situation, where there is no alternative, but to seek closer ties with China to prop up the Russian economy and to avoid international isolation. And this won't be a partnership of equals, I am afraid. Rather Russia will be a junior partner, which would be the direct opposite of an independent pole in multi-polar world on par with China, US and EU that Putin is trying to turn Russia into by anchoring ex-Soviet states to Russia.
What country'd benefit most if Crimea spat leads2 cold war?China! If isolated frm West, Putin'll've no choice&it won't partnership of equals
— simon saradzhyan (@saradzhyan) March 2, 2014