The Crimean parliament unanimously (this is a popular style in Kiev, Simferopol, and Moscow as well: scary in all cases) approved a bill that removes Crimea from Ukraine and asks for a membership in the Russian federation. A referendum should "confirm" this decision in a week. Crimea is/was the most pro-Russian region of Ukraine, artificially donated by RSFSR to Ukrainian SSR in the 1950s. About 60% are Russian folks, 12% are Tatar Muslims, the rest is mostly Ukrainian.
Western pundits, including those who have a deeper understanding for the Russian attitudes, tend to say that "getting Crimea only" would be a Pyrrhic victory for Russia. See e.g. Jack Matlock, two Russian political science postdocs in Toronto, at Harvard.
Crimea actually produces economic losses and requires subsidies and drink water, among other things; Putin could look silly because he recently said that he had no plans to dissolve another country; his image as an aggressor would strengthen, and so on.
I understand and share these considerations – they sort of reflect some of the more Western style of thinking that most of us share – but I may still imagine that the actual Russian thinking is very different.
The Maidan-controlled army (that must be deeply divided, no argument about that) has effectively become an occupation army in Crimea. In the past week, there would be discussions on whether or not the Russian-speaking soldiers who were controlling Crimea and protecting it against attempts by Maidan to capture the peninsula were Russian citizens or some local militias. I don't know; both answers are possible. This question is becoming less important now when the Russian army was declared to be the domestic one in Crimea.
Needless to say, the declaration of independent from Kiev is unconstitutional according to the Ukrainian constitution but the Kiev revolution was unconstitutional as well, so the word "unconstitutional" is (unfortunately?) no longer too damning in these corners of Eastern Europe. What's more important is that the pro-Russian power units de facto control Crimea much like the pro-Maidan units control Kiev (and perhaps most of Ukraine).
Even though I do think that Putin in particular would like to "win" a safe and tight relationship to the whole Ukraine and it's his goal – not necessarily a short–term goal – so Crimea may look like peanuts, I am not quite sure whether the de facto if not de iure annexation of Crimea is such a bad move as most of the pundits seem to think.
One should distinguish Putin and the domestic Russian politicians. Putin is often being demonized but it is very clear that he is essentially doing what a good Russian leader is expected to do by a majority of the Russian nation. Moreover, I think that it would be very analogous in other countries. Certain foreign forces have decided to gradually shrink the power, size, and self-confidence of Russia. It could have been tolerated by Russia in the 1990s but it's surely no longer the case in the recent 15 years when Putin is in charge. Russia has re-realized that when it comes to military and closely related issues, it's still a superpower and it has really no good reason to act submissively.
In fact, the domestic political opinions are much more anti-American and "pro-occupation" than Putin's opinions. The New York Times mentions that the Russian parliament is likely to embrace the steps needed to annex Crimea. In fact, I may imagine that the relevant vote could be unanimous again. Such an attitude of the domestic politicians probably reflects one aspect of their work: they are not being directly exposed to international politics and their "partners" from other countries. They are playing purely domestic politics and because a strongly defiant attitude of Russia is probably very popular with a majority of the Russian electorate, they don't consider the international law and similar things as too important things.
For these reasons, the West may actually be wise if they treated Putin as "our guy" who is closer to the Western and international positions than the rest of his nation and the rest of Russian politicians. Yesterday Václav Klaus said that Putin is behaving sensibly and the U.S. and the EU are also to blame for the tragic situation in Ukraine. I do agree with that.
At the end, I find it plausible that a relatively small victory – such as Crimea – could be viewed as a precedent that shows that the apparent inevitable, uniform, monotonic decline of Russia's power since the late 1980s isn't as monotonic as it may look. The other places of Ukraine are unlikely to be brought under the Russian control as easily as Crimea but this may be just a short-term perspective. It seems perfectly plausible to me to imagine that people in Crimea will think that they're better off and they may become role models in other parts of Ukraine.
Crimea has about 2 million people, about 4.4 percent of Ukraine, so if it were added to Russia, Russia's population would go up by 1.5 percent or so. When it comes to some "empire building", assuming that this is what they are thinking about, it is not a negligible increase. The strategic importance of Crimea is probably vastly greater than 4.4 percent of Ukraine. The port of Sevastopol is important and its history is covered by blood. The peninsula is connected to Ukraine by 2 roads in the North; it is separated by the Strait of Kerch from Russia on the Eastern side (10 miles, ferries operate there).
I don't claim to exactly understand what the Russian people want and what is the order of their priorities. But I am sure that a stop sign for the apparently monotonic weakening of Russia by the foreign pressures is an important part of that, much like efforts to prevent chaos similar to the chaos we recently saw in Kiev. I am totally convinced that a vast majority of the Russian nation considers the mess in Kiev to be a scary example, especially if it were supposed to spread e.g. to Russia itself. And Putin is doing an OK job to fight against these threats. His approval rate grew to 68 percent or so in the wake of the Olympics and the Ukrainian crisis. Is Obama at least dreaming about similar numbers?
The Time Magazine quoted some Russian survey concluding that 73 percent of the Russians think that their country shouldn't become a party in the internal struggles between the Ukrainian. That's interesting but I think that if they were asked the question whether Russia should listen to unanimous requests by parliaments of regions such as Crimea, the result would be extremely different.
There are lots of values, habits, traditions, priorities, and emotions we don't quite understand because it's not the part of the world where we are living and where we were educated. Ron Paul told Russia Today that he was against the U.S. interventions at many places of the world but he also mentioned that Russia is closer so the Russians could perhaps know what they are doing – they could have some understanding of the situation. The principle he is stressing is that decisions should be made at the local level – and Moscow is at least "quasilocal" when it comes to decisions e.g. in Crimea. I agree with that.
Meanwhile, Yanukovitch may have had a heart attack. I am sort of compelled by the Estonian telephone call suggesting that the snipers were hired by the "new coalition" and were shooting people on both sides (cops and protesters). The minister's words – he has already confirmed the authenticity – boil down to a testimony by Dr Olha Bohomolets, an honored doctor of Ukraine, a professor at the Bohomolets National Medicine University named after her granddad, a singer, but especially the boss of the mobile unit of doctors that was treating all the injured (and dead) in the Kiev protests. She was sympathizing with the "Maidan" which is another reason to take her words a bit seriously. Except for the Daily Mail etc., the Western press is trying to hide these important findings that may very well be proving that the "new government of heroes" are mass killers who were shooting their own people as well as the other side to make a "point".
There have been lots of talk about sanctions, especially in the U.S. Europe is more realistic and Czechia is even more realistic than that. I think that even the "relatively small harassment" of Russia and its politicians over this crisis – in which Russia has actually been almost invisible and bloodless so far – is dangerous enough. It should be clear that most other proposed sanctions, like the cancellation of the G8 membership, are complete non-events from a Russian point of view, however.
As I predicted, China has already sent signals that it is ready to join Russia and sink the U.S. dollar if necessary. China owns over $3 trillion of U.S.-denominated assets; one-half are equities, one-half are bonds. China is even saying that it could decide the U.S. dollar to be "no longer good" and demand the repayment of the debt in gold. I am confident that this blow could really be catastrophic for the U.S. Nevertheless, one needs much less imagination to see the terrible blow to the European economy in the case of a trade war of a sort. Please, don't do it!