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Crimea is awash with rumours, rivalry, fear and bluster

The rumour mill is rife in Crimea.

In itself, this is an immense danger in a region already unstable and simmering with revolutionary and separatist fervour. Yesterday on the streets, it was talk of protesters from Kiev's barricades on their way from the Ukrainian capital to put down Crimean separatist moves and "restore order".

In response, some sources said as many as 3000 Crimean men had signed up for informal self-defence units, among them former members of the Ukrainian Berkut riot police, much despised for firing on protesters during the recent clashes in Kiev.

Barely an hour goes by without a new rumour of troops massing or protesters gathering.

Even Russian President Vladimir Putin helped stir the political pot by suddenly announcing a drill that involved putting forces in the west and centre of Russia on the alert.

Against such a volatile backdrop, the real question is how much of this is bluster and sabre-rattling or is there real cause for concern that the battle lines are being drawn for what could easily become an all-out war?

Crimea of course is no stranger to being fought over. As part of the Roman and Byzantine empires before it became part of the Russian empire, Greeks, Goths, Mongols, Turks, British and Germans among others have had a set-to on Crimean soil.

Transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 by the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, himself an ethnic Ukrainian, this Black Sea peninsula is attached to the rest of Ukraine by just the narrowest sliver of land.

So far, since the overthrow of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich last weekend, Crimea is alone in challenging the new order in Kiev.

Yesterday, in the Ukrainian capital, interim President Olexander Turchynov warned Russia against any "military aggression" in Crimea.

Mr Turchynov's warning came in the wake of the parliament building in the Crimean regional capital Simferopol being seized by dozens of armed men who then raised the Russian flag.

Few doubt Russia will use Ukraine and the situation in Crimea to show its neighbours and the world that it still has military muscle. Opinion polls suggest a majority of Russians still view Crimea, annexed by Russia in 1783, as a Russian territory. In Crimea itself, 58% of its inhabitants identify themselves as ethnic Russians while ethnic Ukrainians make up 24% and Tartars 12%.

Russia's "routine" military drills coinciding with the crisis might not be so concerning had similar manoeuvres not preceded military invasion before. Back in 2008 Russia performed several exercises in the North Caucasus before invading Georgia and already the type of military drills, not to mention the rhetoric coming out of Moscow, is too similar for Kiev to ignore.

Russia has substantial military personnel stationed in Crimea and its Black Sea Fleet is docked there.

Worryingly, the similarities between 2008 and 2014 do not end with military exercises.

Moscow's handing out of Russian citizenship papers and passports to Ukrainian citizens in Crimea is an offer similar to the one Russia made in the Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia before the war there. Such a move might also provide a pretext for Russia to intervene to protect its citizens. None of this of course means that Russia will intervene but it does send a clear message to Ukraine and the West. Indeed, the entire Ukrainian uprising has exemplified the current competition between the West and Russia.

For some time Moscow's strategic goal has been to draw Ukraine into the Eurasian Union, which will come into being in 2015. Aimed at rivalling the European Union, its prospective members include Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. Mr Putin has always made clear he wanted Ukraine as part of this club, hence Moscow's backing of its placeman, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich. For now Moscow has seen that ambition thwarted and lost a leader it could manipulate. So what now?

For the moment there seems to be two distinct alternatives. One would involve a rethinking of foreign policy on Moscow's part, accepting that both Russia and Ukraine have a mutual interest in good relations with their common major trading partner, the European Union, as well as with each other. The other is for Russia to play regional hardball, laying some kind of claim to Crimea which would likely lead to greater regional instability and possibly war.

As has already become obvious by its diplomatic activity in connection with the Syrian conflict, Moscow is acting more assertively in global affairs, and, as evident in regards to Ukraine, is considering what more it can do.

Yesterday, Moscow was once again showing its diplomatic agility with Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich saying that Western states had rejected Russian proposals for joint efforts to resolve the crisis in Ukraine "before it shifted to its hot phase".

Though Moscow was prepared to work with the West on resolving the crisis, Mr Lukashevich stressed the interests of all Ukrainians must be taken into account and any agreements reached must be implemented.

What this means exactly remains open to some interpretation, but at least it indicates diplomatic channels are open and dialogue still possible and functioning.

That, for the moment, is a good sign in what is otherwise a precarious and potentially combustible political crisis.

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