Accusing the West of encouraging an “unconstitutional coup” in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has said that Moscow reserves the right to use its military to protect Russians there but voiced hope it will not need to do so.
The Russian leader’s first comments on Ukraine since its fugitive president fled to Russia came as US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev to meet with Ukraine’s new government.
Mr Putin declared that Western actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy and warned that any sanctions the West places on Russia for its actions there will backfire. Both the US and the 28-nation European Union have raised the possibility of sanctions against Russia.
The US has announced a one billion US dollar (£599 million) aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine, which is scrambling to get international loans to fend off looming bankruptcy. Its finance minister, who has said Ukraine needs 35 billion dollars (£21 billion) to get through this year and next, is meeting officials from the International Monetary Fund.
Tensions remain high in Crimea, with troops loyal to Moscow firing warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers.
Russia took over the strategic peninsula on Saturday, placing its troops around the peninsula’s ferry, military bases and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.
The new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which Mr Putin does not recognise, has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea.
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 gave 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,” David Madden, market analyst at IG, said.
Speaking from his residence outside Moscow, Mr Putin said he still considers Viktor Yanukovych to be Ukraine’s president and hopes that Russia will not need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
“We aren’t going to fight the Ukrainian people,” Mr Putin said, adding that the massive military manoeuvres Russia has been doing near Ukraine’s border had been planned and were unrelated to the situation in Ukraine.
Earlier, Mr Putin had ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in those exercises to return to their bases – some 150,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and dozens of aircraft in all.
Mr Putin also insisted that the Russian military deployment in Crimea has remained within the limits set by a bilateral agreement on a Russian military base there. He said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, but insisted its residents have the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum set for later this month.
Mr Putin accused the West of using Mr Yanukovych’s decision in November to ditch a pact with the EU in favour of closer ties with Russia to encourage the months of protests that drove him from power and put Ukraine’s future in turmoil.
“We have told them a thousand times ’Why are you splitting the country?”’ he said.
Yet he acknowledged that Mr Yanukovych has no political future and said Russia gave him shelter only to save his life. Ukraine’s new government wants to put the fugitive leader on trial for the deaths of more than 80 people during protests last month in Kiev.
Ukraine’s dire finances were a key issue in the protests that drove Mr Yanukovych from power. On Tuesday, Russia’s state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom said it will cancel a price discount on gas it sells to Ukraine. Russia had offered the discount in December as part of Russian help for Ukraine. Gazprom also said Ukraine owes it 1.5 billion dollars (£89 million).
Crimea still remained a potential flashpoint. Pro-Russian troops who had taken control of the Belbek air base in Crimea fired warning shots into the air as about 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.
About a dozen 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 new Ukrainian government has said the troops that have overtaken Belbek and other Ukrainian military bases across Crimea were Russian, but Mr Putin denied it, saying they were self-defence forces answering to Crimea’s pro-Russian regional government.
Mr Putin said 22,000 Ukrainian soldiers in Crimea have “dispersed”. He did not explain if that meant they had just left their posts or if they had switched allegiances from Kiev to the local pro-Russian government. Those officials claim that 5,500 Ukrainian soldiers have pledged allegiance to them and said they were seeking to move up a vote planned for March 30 on the region’s status.
In New York, Russia’s ambassador to the UN Vitaly Churkin said Russia was entitled to deploy up to 25,000 troops in Crimea under the agreement.
Russia is demanding the implementation of a Western-sponsored peace deal that Mr Yanukovych signed with the opposition last month that set a new Ukrainian presidential election no later than December. Mr Yanukovych fled the capital hours after the signing and ended up in Russia, and the Ukrainian parliament then set the vote for May 25.
In Brussels, meanwhile, the ambassadors of Nato’s 28 member nations held another emergency meeting on Ukraine at the request of Poland, which borders both Russia and Ukraine. The alliance said it and Russia agreed to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine at a special meeting tomorrow.
Nato chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen has said Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine violates the UN charter and threatens peace and security in Europe.
President Barack Obama has said Russia is “on the wrong side of history” in Ukraine and its actions violate international law. He said the US is considering economic and diplomatic options that will isolate Russia.
In return, Russia’s agricultural oversight agency reversed 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.
The European Union’s foreign ministers has threatened Moscow with halting talks on visa liberalisation and negotiations on further economic co-operation unless Russian troops in Crimea pull back over the next three days. The bloc’s 28 heads of state and government will hold an emergency meeting on Thursday to decide whether to impose sanctions against Russia.
Mr Putin’s economic advisor, Sergei Glazyev, says Russia can develop financial ties with other nations to offset any potential Western sanctions.