With their own troops in Crimea effectively prisoners in their bases, the new authorities in Kiev painted a sorry picture of the military bequeathed them by the pro-Moscow president overthrown two weeks ago. They announced the raising of a new National Guard to be drawn from volunteers among veterans.
But despite NATO reconnaissance aircraft patrolling the Polish and Romanian borders and U.S. naval forces preparing for exercises in the Black Sea, Western powers have made clear that, as when ex-Soviet Georgia lost territory in fighting in 2008, they have no appetite for risking turning the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War into a military conflict with Moscow.
Diplomacy seemed restricted to a war of words. The U.S. and Russian foreign ministers did speak by telephone. But the U.S. State Department said Moscow's position offered no room for negotiation and the Russian Foreign Ministry issued a statement condemning U.S. financial aid to the "illegitimate regime" in Kiev, which it calls ultra-nationalists with "Nazi" links.
That language echoed ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich, who gave a news conference in Russia insisting that he was still the legitimate head of state. Toppled by protests sparked by his rejection of closer ties with the European Union in favor of a deal from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Yanukovich blamed his enemies for provoking Crimean secession.
Parliament in Kiev, whose position is backed by Western governments, dismisses plans for a referendum on Sunday to unite the region with Russia as illegitimate and resolved on Tuesday to dissolve Crimea's regional assembly if by Wednesday it had not scrapped the plebiscite. There seems no chance that it will.
Moscow, which to widespread scorn denies its troops have any role in the takeover of the once Russian-ruled region, says people in Crimea, a small majority of whom are ethnic Russians, should have the right to secede. It has made much of anti-Russian sentiment among some Ukrainian nationalists - though many native Russian speakers in Ukraine are wary of Putin.
U.S. lawmakers are preparing sanctions against Russia and European Union leaders could impose penalties, such as bans on visas for key officials, as early as Monday.
The chairman of the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee said on Tuesday he would introduce a bill that would include $150 million in aid for Ukraine, sanctions and backing for a shift in funding for the International Monetary Fund.
The bill echoes one passed by the U.S. House of Representatives last week in backing $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine, but it would also authorize $50 million for democracy, governance and civil society assistance, as well as $100 million for enhanced security cooperation for Ukraine and other states in Central and Eastern Europe.
However, by the time the West acts, Crimea could already have voted - in a referendum not recognized by Kiev or the West - to seek union with Russia. The ballot paper offers no option to retain the status quo of autonomy within Ukraine.
Voters among the two million population must choose either direct union with Moscow or restoring an old constitution that made Crimea sovereign with ties to Ukraine. On Tuesday, the regional assembly passed a resolution that a sovereign Crimea would sever links to Kiev and join Russia anyway.
The Russian parliament has already approved the accession in principle of Crimea, which was handed to Ukraine by Soviet rulers 60 years ago. Still, it is not clear whether or how soon Putin would formalize such a union as he engages in a complex confrontation with the West for geostrategic advantage.
In disputes with Georgia, Russia has granted recognition to small breakaway states on its borders, a process critics view as annexation in all but name. It fiercely criticized Western recognition of the independence of Kosovo from its ally Serbia - a process which Crimea's parliament nonetheless cited as a legal precedent for its own forthcoming declaration of independence.
There seems little chance that Crimea's new leaders, who emerged after Yanukovich's overthrow as Russian-backed forces took control of the peninsula, will fail to get the result they want. A boycott by ethnic Tatars, 12 percent of the regional population and deeply wary after centuries of persecution by Moscow, will have little effect as there is no minimum turnout.
In Sevastopol, the Crimean home port of Russia's Black Sea Fleet, Valery Medvedev, the chairman of the city's electoral commission, made no pretence at concealing his own preference:
"We're living through historic times. Sevastopol would love to fulfil its dream of joining Russia. I want to be part of Russia and I'm not embarrassed to say that," he told reporters.