President Vladimir Putin has pulled his forces back from the Ukrainian border yet said Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians in Ukraine.
He accused the West of encouraging an anti-constitutional coup in Ukraine and driving it onto anarchy and declared that any sanctions the West places on Russia will backfire.
The comments were the first Mr Putin has made since Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev last month and landed in Russia. Ukraine’s new government wants to put him on trial for the deaths of more than 80 people during protests in Kiev.
Tensions remain high in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, with troops loyal to Moscow firing warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers.
Yet world markets seemed to recover from their fright over the situation in Ukraine, clawing back a large chunk of yesterday’s stock losses, while oil, gold, wheat and the Japanese yen have given back some of their gains.
“Confidence in equity markets has been restored as the standoff between Ukraine and Russia is no longer on red alert,” said David Madden, market analyst at IG.
Speaking from his residence outside Moscow, Mr Putin said he considers Mr Yanukovych to still be Ukraine’s leader and hopes that Russia will not need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
But he did added that Mr Yanukovych has no political future and Russia gave him shelter only to save his life.
Mr Putin accused the West of using Mr Yanukovych’s decision in November to ditch a pact with the 28-nation European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia to encourage the months of protests that drove him from power.
Earlier in the day, the Kremlin said Mr Putin had ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s border to return to their bases. The massive military exercise in western Russia involving 150,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and dozens of aircraft was supposed to wrap up anyway, so it was not clear if Mr Putin’s move was an attempt to heed the West’s call to de-escalate the crisis that has put Ukraine’s future on the line.
It came as US Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Kiev to meet with the new Ukrainian leadership that deposed the pro-Russian Mr Yanukovych and has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea.
The Kremlin, which does not recognise the new Ukrainian leadership, insists it made the move in order to protect Russian installations in Ukraine and its citizens living there.
Today, Russian troops who had taken control of the Belbek air base in the hotly-contested Crimea region fired warning shots into the air as around 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.
About a dozen Russian soldiers at the base warned the Ukrainians, who were marching unarmed, not to approach. They fired several warning shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued to march toward them.
The shots reflected tensions running high in the Black Sea peninsula since Russian troops, estimated by Ukrainian authorities to be 16,000 strong, tightened their grip over the weekend on the Crimean peninsula, where Moscow’s Black Sea Fleet is based.
Ukraine has accused Russia of violating a bilateral agreement on conditions of a Russian lease of a naval base in Crimea that restricts troop movements, but Russia has argued that it was acting within the limits set by the deal.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said yesterday at the UN Security Council that Russia was entitled to deploy up to 25,000 troops in Crimea under the agreement.
Mr Churkin did not specify how many Russian troops are now stationed in Crimea, but said that “they are acting in a way they consider necessary to protect their facilities and prevent extremist actions”.
Mr Churkin said Russia was not trying to ensure the return to power of Mr Yanukovych, but still considers him the legitimate leader of Ukraine and demands the implementation of a Western-sponsored peace deal he signed with the opposition that set presidential elections for December. The Russian envoy at those talks did not sign the deal.
Mr Yanukovych fled the capital hours after the deal was signed and ended up in Russia, and the Ukrainian parliament set the presidential vote for May 25.
In Crimea, a supposed Russian ultimatum for two Ukrainian warships to surrender or be seized passed without action from either side, as the two ships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Vladimir Anikin said late yesterday that no ultimatum had been issued.
The manoeuvres, which Mr Putin ordered last Wednesday, involved scrambling fighter jets to patrol Russia’s western frontiers and stoked fears that the Kremlin might send troops into Russian-speaking regions in eastern Ukraine.
Meanwhile in Brussels, the ambassadors of Nato’s 28 member nations will hold a second emergency meeting on Ukraine today after Poland, which borders both Russia and Ukraine, invoked an article calling for consultations when a nation sees its “territorial integrity, political independence or security threatened”.
President Barack Obama has said that Russia is “on the wrong side of history” in Ukraine and its actions violate international law. Mr Obama said the US was considering economic and diplomatic options that will isolate Russia, and called on Congress to work on an aid package for Ukraine.
In return, Russia’s agricultural oversight agency issued a statement declaring the reversal of its earlier decision to lift the ban on imports of US pork. It said the existing US system of checks does not guarantee its safety.
Mr Putin’s economic advisor, Sergei Glazyev, said that Russia can develop financial ties with other nations to offset any potential Western sanctions.
EU foreign ministers have threatened Moscow with halting talks on visa liberalisation and negotiations on further economic cooperation unless Russian troops on the Crimean peninsula pull back over the next three days.
The bloc’s 28 heads of state and government will hold an emergency meeting on the situation in Ukraine on Thursday that will decide on imposing the sanctions if there is no de-escalation on the ground.