US Secretary of State John Kerry (second right) visits a memorial to pro-Western protesters killed by police last month in Kiev, yesterday.
MOSCOW: President Vladimir Putin delivered a robust defence of Russia’s actions in Crimea yesterday 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.
But tension remained high on the ground, with Russian forces firing warning shots in a confrontation with Ukrainian servicemen, 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 lifted Russian bonds and stock markets around the world after a panic sell-off on Monday.
Putin denied 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 counterproductive, 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.
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 $1bn economic package and technical assistance for the new government.
Kerry said there was no evidence to support Moscow’s version of events — that Russian speakers are in danger in Ukraine.
“It is clear that Russia has been working hard to create a pretext for being able to invade further,” he said. “Russia has talked about Russian-speaking ordinary citizens that are under siege. They are not. And in fact this government has acted remarkably responsibly.”
He said the United States was not seeking a confrontation and would prefer to see the situation managed through international institutions.
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 would be legitimate, he said.
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”. He gave no details.
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, 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 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 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 stand-off 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.
The Ukrainian border guard service said Russian navy ships had blocked both ends of the Kerch Strait between Crimea and Russia, but Ukraine’s infrastructure ministry said the 4.5km wide waterway was still open for civilian shipping.
Despite Putin’s more conciliatory comments, Russia has shown few signs of de-escalating its conflict with Ukraine so far, Nato said yesterday as its members held emergency talks on the crisis.
A senior US administration official said Washington would work with Congress to approve $1bn in loan guarantees to help lessen the impact on Ukrainians of proposed energy subsidy cuts.
In further pressure on Kiev, Russia’s top gas producer Gazprom said it would remove a discount on gas prices for Ukraine from April.
Putin secured parliamentary backing at the weekend to invade Ukraine if necessary to protect Russian interests and citizens after Yanukovich’s downfall. Russia’s Black Sea Fleet has a base in Crimea, a peninsula that has an ethnic Russian majority.
Ukraine said observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, a pan-European security body, would travel at its invitation to Crimea in an attempt to defuse the military stand-off there.
A Kremlin aide said that if the United States did impose sanctions, Moscow might drop the dollar as a reserve currency and refuse to repay loans to US banks.
The European Union, which will hold an emergency summit tomorrow, has threatened unspecified “targeted measures” unless Russia returns its forces to their bases and opens talks with Ukraine’s government.
Western leaders are not considering a military response, but Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the Western allies would intensify their assessment of how Russia’s military moves in Ukraine affect the alliance’s security. Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said Russia had agreed to meet Nato representatives today to discuss Ukraine.