RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service, Associated Press
MOSCOW — Accusing the West of encouraging an "unconstitutional coup" in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow reserves the right to use its military to protect Russians there but hopes it doesn't have to. The Russian leader's first comments on Ukraine since its fugitive president fled came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev to meet with Ukraine's new government.
Putin declared that Western actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy and warned that any sanctions the West might place on Russia for its actions there will backfire.
"We aren't going to fight the Ukrainian people," Putin said, adding that Russian military maneuvers involving 150,000 troops near Ukraine's border had been planned and were unrelated to the current situation in Ukraine. He ordered the troops back to their bases Tuesday.
The U.S., meanwhile, announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine, which faces a looming financial disaster. NATO members met in Brussels and said the alliance would hold talks Wednesday with Russian officials about Ukraine. World markets rose, buoyed by Putin's apparent efforts to de-escalate tensions.
"We are going to do our best (to help you). We are going to try very hard," Kerry said in Kiev. "We hope Russia will respect the election that you are going to have."
Tensions remained high in Crimea, with troops loyal to Moscow firing warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers. Heavily armed Russian forces have taken over the strategic peninsula, surrounding 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 new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which Putin does not recognize, has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea, which Putin denies.
"Those unknown people without insignia who have seized administrative buildings and airports ... what we are seeing is a kind of velvet invasion," Russian military analyst Alexander Golts told The Associated Press in Moscow.
Yet world markets recovered from their fright over Ukraine, clawing back a large chunk of Monday's stock losses, while oil, gold, wheat and the Japanese yen gave back some gains. In New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surged 200 points Tuesday on the news that Putin had pulled troops away from Ukraine's border.
"Confidence in equity markets has been restored as the standoff between Ukraine and Russia is no longer on red alert," said David Madden, market analyst at IG.
Speaking from his residence outside Moscow, Putin said he still considers Viktor Yanukovych to be Ukraine's president and hopes that Russia won't need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
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 later this month.
Putin accused the West of using Yanukovych's decision in November to ditch a pact with the EU in favor 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 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 over 80 people during protests in Kiev.
At the House of Commons in London, British Foreign Minister William Hague rejected Putin's arguments.
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