Putin: ‘We will only use force as a last resort’

President Vladimir Putin delivered a robust defence of Russia’s actions in Crimea and said he would use force in Ukraine only as a last resort, easing market fears yesterday that East-West tension over the former Soviet republic could lead to war.

Putin: ‘We will only use force as a last resort’

But tension remained high on the ground. Russian forces fired warning shots in a confrontation with Ukrainian servicemen at an air base, and Russian navy ships were reported to have blockaded the strait separating the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula from Russia.

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.

His comments, coupled with the end of Russian war games near Ukraine’s borders, lifted Russian bonds and stock markets around the world after a panic sell-off on Monday.

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”.

“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.”

Western sanctions under consideration against Russia would be counter-productive, he said. A senior US official said Washington was ready to impose them in days rather than weeks. The Russian Foreign Ministry warned that Moscow would retaliate.

In Washington, US President Barack Obama acknowledged that Russia had legitimate interests in Ukraine but said that did not give Putin the right to intervene militarily.

“President Putin seems to have a different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations,” Obama said. “But I don’t think that's fooling anybody.”

Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said yesterday after speaking to Obama over the weekend that the Group of Seven leading industrialised nations were considering meeting in the near future, a move that would pointedly exclude Russia. The G7 became the G8 in 1998 when Russia was formally included.

US Secretary of state John Kerry, on his first visit to Kiev since the overthrow of Russian-backed president Victor Yanukovych, accused Moscow of seeking a pretext to invade more of the country.

Kerry laid flowers in Independence Square at a memorial to pro-Western protesters killed by police last month, describing the experience as “moving, distressing and inspiring”. He met Ukraine’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 Yanukovych, who fled to Russia last week, was still the legitimate leader. No Ukrainian government elected “under such terror as we see now” would be legitimate, he said.

Kerry said the United States was not seeking a confrontation and would prefer to see the situation managed through international institutions such as the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE).

Ukrainian prime minister Arseny Yatseniuk told reporters in Kiev that the Ukrainian and Russian governments had begun consultations on the crisis “at the level of ministers”.

The February 22 ousting of Yanukovych after months of street protests in Kiev and Russia’s seizure of control in Crimea have prompted the most serious confrontation between Moscow and the West since the end of the Cold War.

Western governments have been alarmed at the possibility that Russia may also move into eastern and southern Ukraine, home to many Russian speakers, which Putin did not rule out.

“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,” he said, looking relaxed as he sat before a small group of reporters at his residence near Moscow.

Earlier yesterday, 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 fragility of the situation in Crimea, a Russian soldier fired three volleys of shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched bearing the Ukrainian flag towards their aircraft at a military airfield surrounded by Russian troops at Belbek, near 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 eventually dispersed. No one was hurt.

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