A girl and her father, both members of Slovenia's Ukrainian community, hold signs as they protest against Russian troops in Ukraine. REUTERS/Srdjan Zivulovic
President Vladimir Putin has 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 that
East-West tension over the former Soviet republic could lead
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
"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
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."
US Secretary of State John Kerry, on his first visit to Kiev
since the overthrow of Russian-backed President Victor
Yanukovich, 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
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 such terror as we see now" would be legitimate, he
Kerry said the United States was not seeking a confrontation
and would prefer to see the situation managed through
international institutions such as the pan-European
Organisation for Security and Cooperation 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". He
gave no details.
The February 22 ousting of Yanukovich 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
Earlier on Tuesday, 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
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 unarmed Ukrainian servicemen who marched bearing
the Ukrainian flag towards their aircraft at a military
airfield surrounded by Russian troops at Belbek, near
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.
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 4.5-km
(2.7-mile) wide waterway was still open for civilian
Russian dollar bond markets rebounded on Tuesday, encouraged
by Putin's comments.
Russia had paid a heavy financial price on Monday for its
military intervention in Ukraine, with nearly $60 billion
wiped off the value of Russian firms on the Moscow stock
Despite Putin's more conciliatory comments, NATO said Russia
had shown few signs of de-escalating its conflict with
Ukraine so far, as members of the military alliance held
emergency talks on the crisis. Other incidents showed
tensions remained high.
Turkey on Monday scrambled eight F-16 fighter jets after a
Russian surveillance plane flew along its Black Sea coast,
the military said.
A senior US administration official said Washington would
work with Congress to approve $1 billion in loan guarantees
to help lessen the impact on Ukrainians of proposed energy
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 with an ethnic
Putin is dismayed that the new leadership in Ukraine, the
cradle of Russian civilisation, has plotted a course towards
the European Union and away from what had been Moscow's
sphere of influence during generations of Soviet Communist
Ukraine said observers from the OSCE would travel at its
invitation to Crimea in an attempt to defuse the military
standoff there. It was not clear if Russia would let them
into the peninsula.
Ukrainian officials say Moscow has poured additional troops
into Crimea, which former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev
transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 when both
republics were part of the Soviet Union.
The United States on Monday suspended all military
engagements with Russia, including military exercises and
port visits, and froze trade and investment talks with
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 on
Thursday, 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.
"NATO allies stand together in the spirit of strong
solidarity in this grave crisis," he told reporters in
Brussels after NATO ambassadors met at Poland's request.
Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini said Russia had
agreed to meet NATO representatives on Wednesday to discuss