Putin says miltary is last resort in Ukraine
Delivers robust defence of Russia’s actions in Crimea; US grants US$1 billion aid package
MOSCOW — Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis in his first comments since its president fled, saying yesterday that Russia has no intention “to fight the Ukrainian people” but reserved the right to use force.
As the Russian president held court in his personal residence, US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiev’s fledgling government and Moscow agreed to sit down with NATO.
Although nerves remained on edge in Crimea, with Russian troops firing warning shots to ward off Ukrainian soldiers, global markets catapulted higher on tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict. Kerry brought moral support and a US$1 billion aid package to a Ukraine fighting to fend off bankruptcy.
US President Barack Obama said yesterday that his administration’s push to punish Putin put the US on “the side of history that more and more people around the world deeply believe in, the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people, are able to make their own decisions about their own lives.”
“Mr. Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he is not abiding by that principle,” Obama added.
Obama spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday about the situation and discussed a potential resolution to the crisis.
The officials also said Obama would not attend a G8 summit scheduled for Sochi, Russia, in June unless there is a Russian reversal in the Ukraine crisis.
Lounging in an arm-chair before Russian tricolor flags, Putin delivered a characteristic performance filled with earthy language, macho swagger and sarcastic jibes, accusing the West of promoting an “unconstitutional coup” in Ukraine. At one point he compared the US role to an experiment with “lab rats.”
But the overall message appeared to be one of de-escalation. “It seems to me (Ukraine) is gradually stabilizing,” Putin said. “We have no enemies in Ukraine.”
He tempered those comments by warning that Russia was willing to use “all means at our disposal” to protect ethnic Russians in the country.
Significantly, Russia agreed to a NATO request to hold a special meeting to discuss Ukraine today in Brussels, opening up a possible diplomatic channel in a conflict that still holds monumental hazards and uncertainties.
While the threat of military confrontation retreated somewhat yesterday, both sides ramped up economic feuding in their struggle over Ukraine. Russia hit its nearly broke neighbour with a termination of discounts on natural gas, while the US announced a US$1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine.
“We are going to do our best (to help you). We are going to try very hard,” Kerry said upon arriving in Kiev. “We hope Russia will respect the election that you are going to have.”
Ukraine’s finance minister, who has said Ukraine needs US$35 billion to get through this year and next, was meeting yesterday with officials from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). World stock markets, which slumped the previous day, clawed back a large chunk of their losses on signs that Russia was backpedaling.
Russia took over the strategic peninsula of Crimea on Saturday, placing its troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.
The territory’s enduring volatility was put in stark relief yesterday morning: Russian troops, who had taken control of the Belbek air base, fired warning shots into the air as some 300 Ukrainian soldiers demanded their jobs back.
The Ukrainian troops vowed to hold whatever ground they had left on the Belbek base.
“We are worried. But we will not give up our base,” said Captain Nikolai Syomko, an air force radio electrician holding an AK47. He said the soldiers felt they were being held hostage, caught between Russia and Ukraine. There were no other reports of significant armed confrontations Tuesday in Ukraine.
Amid the tensions, the Russian military yesterday test-fired a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. The missile, fired from a launch pad in southern Russia, hit a designated target on a range leased by Russia from Kazakhstan. However, The White House called the launch “routine” and said the US was given advanced notification.
The new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which Putin does not recognize, has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea, which the Russian leader denied. Ukraine’s prime minister expressed hope yesterday that a negotiated solution could be found. Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a news conference that both governments were talking again, albeit slowly.
Herald with AP, Reuters