MOSCOW - 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.

President Barack Obama said that a proposed referendum in Crimea to join Russia would violate international law and said US sanctions were aimed at punishing Moscow for its intervention in Ukraine. “The proposed referendum on the future of Crimea would violate the Ukrainian constitution and violate international law,” Obama told reporters at the White House. “Any discussion about the future of Ukraine must include the legitimate government of Ukraine,” he said.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk said on Thursday that Ukraine is ready to use military force to defend itself if Russia further expands its presence on Ukrainian soil, emphasising that Ukraine would not be made subordinate to its neighbour. Speaking at a news conference after meeting European Union leaders in Brussels, Yatseniuk said Crimea was and would remain an intregal part of Ukraine and dismissed a decision by Crimea’s parliament to join up with Russia.

“In case of further escalation and military intervention into Ukraininan territory by foreign forces, the Ukrainian government and military will act in accordance with the constitution and laws,” Yatseniuk said.

“We are ready to protect our country.”

Yatseniuk called the parliament’s decision illegitimate and said a referendum on Crimea’s status, called by the region’s vice premier for March 16, had no legal grounds.

“Crimea is, was and will be an integral part of Ukraine,” Yatseniuk said, speaking in English and raising his voice for clarity.