Putin at his residence near Moscow. (Reuters)
Moscow, March 4 (Reuters): President Vladimir Putin delivered a robust defence of Russia’s actions in Crimea today and said he would use force in Ukraine only as a last resort, easing market fears that East-West tension over the former Soviet republic could lead to war.
At his first news conference since the crisis began, Putin said Russia reserved the right to use all options to protect compatriots who were living in “terror” in Ukraine, but force was not needed for now.
“There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kiev, in Ukraine in general. This was an anti-constitutional coup and the armed seizure of power,” Putin said, looking relaxed as he sat before a small group of reporters at his residence near Moscow.
“As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need, but such a possibility exists,” he said.
“What could serve as a reason to use military force? It would naturally be the last resort, absolutely the last.”
Earlier today, Putin ordered troops involved in a military exercise in western Russia, close to the border with Ukraine, back to their bases. He said armed men who had seized buildings and other facilities in Crimea were local groups.
But in a sign of the extreme fragility of the situation in Crimea, a Russian soldier fired three volleys of shots over the heads of Ukrainian servicemen who marched unarmed towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops at Belbek, near the port of Sevastopol.
After a standoff in which the two commanders shouted at each other and Russian soldiers levelled rifles and rocket-propelled grenade launchers at the Ukrainians, the incident was defused and the Ukrainians dispersed. No one was hurt.
Putin’s comments lifted Russian bonds and stock markets around the world after a panic sell-off yesterday.
Putin denied the Russian armed forces were directly engaged in the bloodless seizure of Crimea, saying the uniformed troops without national insignia were “local self-defence forces”. Western sanctions under consideration against Russia would be counter-productive, he warned. A senior US official said Washington was ready to impose them in days rather than weeks.
US secretary of state John Kerry made his first visit to Kiev since the overthrow of Russian-backed President Victor Yanukovich, describing the experience as “moving, distressing and inspiring”.
Kerry laid flowers in Independence Square at a memorial to pro-western protesters killed by police last month, met the country’s interim leaders and announced a $1 billion economic package and technical assistance for the new government.
Putin said there had been an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine, and Yanukovich, who fled to Russia last week, was still the legitimate leader. No Ukrainian government elected under current circumstances, with “armed terrorists” in control, would be legitimate, he said.
Kerry dismissed the Russian leader's account of events in Kiev: “Not a single piece of credible evidence supports these claims.”
He accused Moscow of invading Crimea in an act of aggression against Ukraine but said the US was not seeking a confrontation.