While the world is convinced that Putin's Tuesday press conference was an admission of blinking to the west, the reality is anything but that, and hours ago Crimea's parliament voted to join Russia on Thursday and its Moscow-backed government set a referendum within 10 days on the decision in what Reuters said is a "a dramatic escalation of the crisis over the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula." To be sure, the Crimea - which has an ethnic Russian majority - affiliation to Moscow as opposed to Kiev is well-known, yet still the sudden acceleration of moves to bring Crimea formally under Moscow's rule came as European Union leaders gathered for an emergency summit to seek ways to pressure Russia to back down and accept mediation. And now all Putin has to do is sit back and say the people have spoken and without spilling a drop of blood has effectively split the country in two parts, with the entire east of Ukraine, where pro-Russian sentiment also runs high - sure to follow Crimea. Just as we said from the very beginning.
The Crimean parliament voted unanimously "to enter into the Russian Federation with the rights of a subject of the Russian Federation". The vice premier of Crimea, home to Russia's Black Sea military base in Sevastopol, said a referendum on the status would take place on March 16. The announcement, which diplomats said could not have been made without Russian President Vladimir Putin's approval, raised the stakes in the most serious east-west confrontation since the end of the Cold War.
Far from seeking a diplomatic way out, Putin appears to have chosen to create facts on the ground before the West can agree on more than token action against him.
EU leaders had been set to warn but not sanction Russia over its military intervention after Moscow rebuffed Western diplomatic efforts to persuade it to pull forces in Crimea, with a population of about 2 million, back to their bases. It was not immediately clear what impact the Crimean moves would have.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said in a Twitter message: "We stand by a united and inclusive #Ukraine."
French President Francois Hollande told reporters on arrival at the summit: "There will be the strongest possible pressure on Russia to begin lowering the tension and in the pressure there is, of course, eventual recourse to sanctions."
To be sure, the new Kiev government - which may or may not have killed its own citizens in order to rise to power while blaming the atrocities on Yanukovich as described yesterday - has responded in kind to how Putin views them, and declared the referendum illegal and opened a criminal investigation against Crimean Prime Minister Sergei Askyonov, who was appointed by the region's parliament last week. The Ukrainian government does not recognise his authority or that of the parliament. Still, it is by now far too late for Kiev to enforce its will in Crimea.
In the meantime, and confirming that Putin has all the cards, EU leaders had been set to warn but not sanction Russia over its military intervention in Ukraine after Moscow rebuffed Western diplomatic efforts to persuade it to pull forces in Crimea back to their bases. According to EU sources the leaders gathered in Brussels delayed the discussion on sanctions to Russia to a new meeting in two weeks. As we stated yesterday, due to stern German industrial lobby objection, Europe will never implement full blown sanctions and at best will stick to some optical wristslap which has no real adverse impact on Russia.
But back to the Crimea, where a parliament official said voters will be asked two questions: should Crimea be part of the Russian Federation and should Crimea return to an earlier constitution (1992) that gave the region more autonomy?
"If there weren't constant threats from the current illegal Ukrainian authorities, maybe we would have taken a different path," deputy parliament speaker Sergei Tsekov told reporters outside the parliament building in Crimea's main city of Simferopol.
"I think there was an annexation of Crimea by Ukraine, if we are going to call things by their name. Because of this mood and feeling we took the decision to join Russia. I think we will feel much more comfortable there."
All the while, Europe is engaged in idiotic meetings and summits, spearheaded by John Kerry, who was quick to point out how constructive the meeting has been. Perhaps it would have been more so if Russia had participated:
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov refused to meet his new Ukrainian counterpart or to launch a "contact group" to seek a solution to the crisis at talks in Paris on Wednesday despite arm-twisting by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and European colleagues. The two men will meet again in Rome on Thursday.
Tension was high in Crimea after a senior United Nations envoy was surrounded by a pro-Russian crowd, threatened and forced to get back on his plane and leave the country on Wednesday.
The EU summit in Brussels seemed unlikely to adopt more than symbolic measures against Europe's biggest gas supplier, because neither industrial powerhouse Germany nor financial centre Britain is keen to start down that road.
The short, informal EU summit will mostly be dedicated to displaying support for Ukraine's new pro-Western government, represented by Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, who will attend even though Kiev is neither an EU member nor a recognised candidate for membership.
After meeting European Parliament President Martin Schulz, Yatseniuk appealed to Russia to respond to mediation efforts.
After a day of high-stakes diplomacy in Paris on Wednesday, Lavrov refused to talk to Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchitsya, whose new government is not recognised by Moscow.
As he left the French Foreign Ministry, Lavrov was asked if he had met his Ukrainian counterpart. "Who is that?" the Russian minister asked.
He stuck to Putin's line - ridiculed by the West - that Moscow does not command the troops without national insignia which have taken control of Crimea, besieging Ukrainian forces, and hence cannot order them back to bases.
Kerry said afterwards he had never expected to get Lavrov and Deshchitsya into the same room right away, but diplomats said France and Germany had tried to achieve that.
Western diplomats said there was still hope that once Lavrov had reported back to Putin, Russia would accept the idea of a "contact group" involving both Moscow and Kiev as well as the United States and European powers to seek a solution.
Keep hoping. In the meantime, with each passing day, Putin consolidates his new territory even as the west dithers, Europe is unable to obtain the bailout loans it has promised Ukraine, and Kerry keeps talking.