MOSCOW - President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday took the first steps to absorb the Ukrainian region of Crimea into Russia, in what would mark the most significant redrawing of Europe's borders since World War II.
Putin officially informed parliament of Crimea's request to join Russia and instructed the national branches of power to approve an agreement for Crimea to become part of the country.
He was due to address both houses of parliament at 1100 GMT after recognising Crimea's independence late Monday in what was seen as the initial step towards it becoming Russian territory.
The seizure of Crimea by pro-Russian forces following the ousting Ukraine's pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych last month has been condemned around the world and the United States and European Union on Monday issued the first sanctions against a handful of Russian officials.
But such sanctions are unlikely to deter an increasingly defiant Putin who is set to base the justification for the de-facto annexation of Crimea on the weekend referendum in the region where almost 97 per cent voted to split from Ukraine and become part of Russia.
"The president is going to set out his position over the request of Crimea to become part of Russia in line with the result of the referendum," said Sergei Naryshkin, speaker of the State Duma lower house of parliament.
With overwhelming support for the move within Russia itself, tens of thousands of people are expected to hold a rally in central Moscow with the slogan "We are together" after Putin's speech.
Crimea has long held a great hold over the Russian psyche. The lush peninsula has been the base of Kremlin navies since the late 18th century and only became part of Ukraine in 1954 after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushschev transferred it from Russia.
'Quickly and responsibly'
Russia now appears set to present the absorption of Crimea as a just response to a request made by a state that is already independent, albeit recognised by no one but Moscow.
State Duma MPs appear to have quietly shelved a bill that would have allowed Russia to have directly annexed Crimea, possibly on legal advice.
Putin's moves on Tuesday set the stage for parliament to approve the absorption of Crimea following approval by the Russian Constitutional Court.
"Parliament will deal with its responsibility quickly and responsibly," said Naryshkin.
The asset freezes and travel bans announced by the United States and the European Union - billed as the most significant sanctions against Moscow since the end of the Cold War - appear not to be enough to influence Russia.
But a big question remains whether Russia will stop at the already audacious move of taking Crimea under its control or whether it also has its eye on the Russian-speaking regions of Russian-speaking south and eastern Ukraine.