Putin really goes well beyond what most sane strategists consider to be a wise course of action in international politics even from a zero sum perspective. But from the same perspective it may be how Putin must organize his own survival.
Ukrainians consider themselves closely related to Russians. But Putin’s brinkmanship fundamentally undermines that since it mobilizes Russians against Ukrainians in what is Ukraine proper. Instead of insisting on the unity of Ukraine and on the protection of minority (Russian) rights, the Kremlin is effectively seizing control over the Crimea and getting deeply involved with Ukraine’s internal matters. This can permanently alienate Ukrainians from this Kremlin, a pattern that is akin to how it alienated all its European satellites up until 1991 when they broke free and joined NATO en masse and with huge popular mandates. If Putin wants Ukraine to join NATO, he is on the right path.
Russia’s argument that the Ukrainian government is illegitimate isn’t persuasive. The Ukrainian parliament made the call to depose Yanukovich, install a new government and organize new elections shortly. As such, the government is more legitimate than that of many if not most countries. Hence, Russia is interfering in the internal affairs of its neighbors because it can, not because it has a mandate. If it had the latter, its actions would be in the open instead of semi-covert.
The Ukraine’s escape shows Putin’s fundamental weakness to the Russian nationalists. He is forced to strengthen his image in Russia itself; the Kremlin demands a leader who brings victory here even if it hurts the longer term prospects for peace and for Russia itself. Russia may win the Crimea but already lost Ukraine and now risks losing any semblance of good relations with the west. Who will pay for this? First Gazprom later Russia itself.