An examination of the seismic events that set off the most threatening East-West confrontation since the Cold War era, based on Mr. Putin’s public remarks and interviews with officials, diplomats and analysts here, suggests that the Kremlin’s strategy emerged haphazardly, even misleadingly, over a tense and momentous week, as an emotional Mr. Putin acted out of what the officials described as a deep sense of betrayal and grievance, especially toward the United States and Europe.
Some of those decisions, particularly the one to invade Crimea, then took on a life of their own, analysts said, unleashing a wave of nationalistic fervor for the peninsula’s reunification with Russia that the Kremlin has so far proved unwilling, or perhaps unable, to tamp down.
The decision to invade Crimea, the officials and analysts said, was made not by the national security council but in secret among a smaller and shrinking circle of Mr. Putin’s closest and most trusted aides. The group excluded senior officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs or the cadre of comparatively liberal advisers who might have foreseen the economic impact and potential consequences of American and European sanctions.
... Nevertheless, Mr. Putin’s strategy in the last two weeks has appeared ad hoc, influenced by events not always in his control.
“We shouldn’t assume there was a grand plan,” said Mark Galeotti, an expert on Russia’s security forces from New York University who is in Moscow and regularly meets with security officials. “They seem to be making things up as they go along.”
... They also suggest a deepening frustration with other world leaders that has left him impervious to threats of sanctions or international isolation, such that he shrugged off threats by members of the Group of 8 countries to boycott this year’s summit meeting in Sochi, Russia.
Because of Mr. Putin’s centralized authority, Russia’s policies and actions in moments of crisis can appear confused or hesitant until Mr. Putin himself decides on a course of action. That was the case in the days when violence erupted in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, prompting a frantic effort by the Europeans to mediate a compromise. Mr. Putin, perhaps preoccupied with the Olympics
He was watching the ladies' figure skating when the key events happened.
did not send a representative to those talks until the agreement was ready to be initialed.
In general, Russian behavior toward Ukraine before the overthrow of the government was more moderate, compromise-oriented, conciliatory, non-violent, and business-like than American behavior. The Russian view was that Ukraine is more important to them than it is to the West, so they were willing to pay more for cooperation with Ukraine's elected government. Contrast the old Russian offer of $15 billion versus John Kerry's offer in Kiev this week of, as Dr. Evil would say, "One ... billion ... dollars!"
Dmitri Trenin, the director of the Moscow Carnegie Center, said that Russia’s role in Ukraine’s upheaval was “very passive” up until the moment that the government of President Viktor F. Yanukovych collapsed. This was true, he said, despite the Kremlin’s wariness about any new Ukrainian trade agreement with the European Union and its pledge in December to provide a $15 billion package of assistance to shore up the country’s faltering finances. Jolted by the government’s collapse, Mr. Trenin said, the Kremlin “sprang into action almost immediately.”
He and other officials and analysts said that Mr. Putin’s reaction stemmed from the collapse of the agreement on the night of Feb. 21. Mr. Putin, by his own account at a news conference on Tuesday, warned Mr. Yanukovych not to withdraw the government’s security forces from Kiev, one of the demands of the agreement being negotiated.
“ ‘You will have anarchy,’ ” Mr. Putin said he told him. “ ‘There will be chaos in the capital. Have pity on the people.’ But he did it anyway. And as soon as he did it, his office and that of the government were seized, and the chaos I warned him about erupted, and it continues to this day.”
By then, however, Mr. Yanukovych had already lost the support of his party, whose members joined others in Parliament in ordering the security services off the barricades that they had maintained around government buildings in Kiev.
Mr. Yanukovych, fearful because of reports of armed protesters heading to Kiev from western Ukraine
This has been the theory of the New York Times reporters: that the sacking of the armory of the Interior Ministry armory in Lviv by Galician rightists was the key move.
, packed up documents from his presidential residence and fled in the early hours of the next morning. That night Mr. Putin was still assuring President Obama in a telephone call that he would work to resolve the crisis.
By the next day, however, Ukraine’s Parliament had stripped Mr. Yanukovych of his powers, voted to release the opposition leader Yulia V. Tymoshenko from prison and scheduled new presidential elections. Russia’s initial response was muted, but officials have since said that Mr. Putin fumed that the Europeans who had mediated the agreement did nothing to enforce it. Mr. Putin and other officials began describing the new leaders as reactionaries and even fascists that Russia could not accept in power.
“It was probably not just thought of today,” Aleksei A. Chesnakov, a political strategist and former Kremlin aide, said of Mr. Putin’s move in Crimea, “but the trigger came when it was clear that the authorities in Ukraine were not able to return to the compromise of the 21st.”
Two days later Mr. Putin attended the closing ceremony of an Olympics that he hoped would be a showcase of Russia’s revival as a modern, powerful nation. He then ordered the swift, furtive seizure of a region that has loomed large in Russia’s history since Catherine the Great’s conquest. ...
The question now is how far Mr. Putin intends to go. Sergei A. Markov, a political strategist who advises the Kremlin, said it was not yet clear. “He is improvising,” he explained.