MOSCOW - Since his return to the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin has grown more powerful than ever before. The strongman, who has ruled Russia for the past 14 years, has muzzled his opponents, check-mated the West on Syria and is now on the verge of annexing Crimea.
On Friday, the Kremlin upped the ante further, hinting it could move forces beyond Ukraine's peninsula to protect his compatriots.
But analysts say Putin is becoming king of an ever-more isolated castle, provoking the outside world to consolidate control at home in a strategy ultimately doomed to fail.
Fresh from his success in hosting the Winter Olympics in Sochi, Putin saw his moment amid the chaos engulfing Ukraine, where pro-Western demonstrations last month toppled a leader seeking closer ties to Moscow.
Gambling that it was safe to ignore the howls of protest from the West, he sent his soldiers into Crimea - a largely Russian-speaking peninsula in the south of Ukraine.
"No one is ready to fight over Crimea," said Gleb Pavlovsky, a political analyst and former Kremlin adviser.
"The West will have to do its best to find a way out. Putin is at the centre of this crisis. This strengthens his hand. It will be Putin, not the West, who will decide the fate of the Ukrainian revolution."
The two-time Russian president believes "the West is weak," said Nikolai Petrov, professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
"He believes that the rules of the game will be changing and he who plays first, wins."
While the intervention in Crimea was sudden, Kremlin-watchers suggest it had long been planned for and was merely awaiting an opportunity.
The referendum called by the pro-Moscow regime and scheduled for Sunday is almost a foregone conclusion.
It marks another black-eye for the West in its dealings with Russia after Putin battled Washington and its friends to a standstill over Syria's chemical weapons programme, wielding his UN Security Council veto in defence of ally Bashar Al-Assad.
That forced a humiliating climbdown for US President Barack Obama, who drew a "red line" over the use of chemical weapons, only to see it stepped over with impunity when opponents saw he would not resort to military force.