Russian President Vladimir Putin yesterday said that Moscow would use military force in Ukraine only as a last resort, in remarks apparently intended to ease East-West tension over fears of war in the former Soviet republic.
However, Russia reserved the right to use all options in Ukraine to protect its compatriots there who were living in “terror,” Putin said.
While Putin said sanctions being considered against Russia would be counterproductive, a senior US official said the US was ready to impose them in days rather than weeks.
US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev and announced an economic package and technical assistance for Ukraine in a show of support for its new government.
Putin said there had been an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine and ousted president Viktor Yanukovych, an ally of Russia, was still the legitimate leader of the country despite giving up all power.
Last month’s ousting of Yanukovych after months of street protests in Kiev and Russia’s bloodless seizure of Ukraine’s Crimea region prompted a confrontation between Moscow and the West widely seen as the most serious since the end of the Cold War. The West has been alarmed at the possibility that Russia might also move into eastern and southern Ukraine, home to many Russian speakers.
“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,” said Putin, looking relaxed 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.
Russian bond markets recovered yesterday, encouraged by Putin’s comments. Russia had paid a heavy financial price on Monday for its military intervention in Ukraine, with the Moscow stock market falling more than 10 percent, wiping nearly US$60 billion off the value of Russian firms.
Kerry’s visit to Kiev comes as Washington and its Western allies step up pressure on Moscow to withdraw its troops from Crimea or face economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation.
A senior US administration official, who briefed reporters en route to Kiev, said Washington would work with the US Congress to approve US$1 billion in loan guarantees to help lessen the impact of proposed energy subsidy cuts on Ukrainians.
NATO allies were to hold emergency talks on the crisis yesterday, for the second time in three days.
Moscow’s UN envoy told a stormy meeting of the Security Council that Yanukovych had sent a letter to Putin requesting he use Russia’s military to restore law and order in Ukraine.
Ukraine said observers from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, a pan-European security body, would travel at its invitation to Crimea in an attempt to defuse the military standoff there.
The US has begun spelling out its response to Russia’s incursion, announcing a suspension of all military engagements with Russia, including military exercises and port visits, and freezing trade and investment talks with Moscow.
US President Barack Obama met national security advisers on Monday to discuss how Washington and its allies could “further isolate” Russia, a White House official said.
“Over time this will be a costly proposition for Russia,” Obama told reporters.
Members of the US Congress are looking at options, including sanctions on Russia’s banks and freezing assets of Russian public institutions and private investors, but they said they wanted European states to step up their involvement.
A Kremlin aide said that if the US did impose sanctions, Moscow might drop the US dollar as a reserve currency and refuse to repay loans to US banks.
An IMF mission is in Kiev to discuss financial assistance for Ukraine to help it avoid bankruptcy. Kiev’s new leaders want a financial package of at least US$15 billion, with a quick release of some of the cash.
The EU has threatened unspecified “targeted measures” unless Russia returns its forces to their bases and opens talks with Ukraine’s new government.