Russian President Vladimir Putin pulled his forces back from the Ukrainian border on Tuesday yet said Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians there.
He accused the West of encouraging an unconstitutional coup in Ukraine and driving it into anarchy. He also declared that any sanctions the West places on Russia will backfire.
The remarks were Putin's first comments since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv last month and landed in Russia. Ukraine's new government wants to put him on trial for the deaths of over 80 people during protests in Kyiv.
Tensions remained high Tuesday in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, with troops loyal to Moscow firing warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers.
"There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kyiv, in Ukraine in general. This was an unconstitutional coup and the armed seizure of power. No one argues with this. Who can argue with it?" Putin asked a small group of reporters at his residence outside Moscow
"This is the last resort. We believe, have believed and will believe, that Ukraine is not only our closest neighbour but a brotherly republic."
Putin also said he considers Yanukovych to still be Ukraine's leader and hopes that Russia won't need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.
He did say, however, that Yanukovych has no political future and Russia gave him shelter only to save his life.
Putin accused the West of using Yanukovych's decision in November to ditch a pact with the 28-nation European Union in favour of closer ties with Russia to encourage the months of protests that drove him from power.
"He also said — quite unbelievably — that the soldiers [in Ukraine] were not Russians, that they were self-defence forces in post-Soviet uniforms that they'd gotten from somewhere else," CBC's Susan Ormiston reported from Kyiv.
"We know that some [soldiers] have identified themselves as being Russian."
Earlier Tuesday, the Kremlin said Putin had ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine's border to return to their bases. The massive military exercise in western Russia involving 150,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and dozens of aircraft was supposed to wrap up anyway, so it was not clear if Putin's move was an attempt to heed the West's call to de-escalate the crisis that has put Ukraine's future on the line.
John Kerry visits Kyiv with promise of $1 billion in aid
In a somber show of U.S. support for Ukraine's new leadership, Secretary of State John Kerry walked the streets Tuesday where nearly 100 anti-government protesters were gunned down by police last month, and promised beseeching crowds that American aid is on the way.
The Obama administration announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package in Washington as Kerry was arriving in Kiev. The fast-moving developments came as the U.S. readied economic sanctions amid worries that Moscow was ready to stretch its military reach further into the mainland of the former Soviet republic.
Kerry headed straight to Institutska Street at the start of an hours-long visit intended to bolster the new government that took over just a week ago when Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych fled. He lay a bouquet of red roses, and twice the Roman Catholic secretary of state made the sign of the cross at a shrine set up to memorialize protesters who were killed during mid-February riots.
"We're concerned very much. We hope for your help, we hope for your assistance," a woman shouted as Kerry walked down a misty street lined with tires, plywood, barbed wire and other remnants of the barricades that protesters had stood up to try to keep Yanukovych's forces from reaching nearby Maidain Square, the heart of the demonstrations.
Piles of flowers brought in honor of the dead provided splashes of color in an otherwise drab day that was still tinged with the smell of smoke.
"We will be helping," Kerry said. "We are helping. President Obama is planning more assistance."
Warning shots fired in Crimea
On Tuesday, Russian troops who had taken control of the Belbek air base in the Crimea region fired warning shots into the air as around 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.
About a dozen Russian soldiers at the base warned the Ukrainians, who were marching unarmed, not to approach. They fired several warning shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued to march toward them.
The shots reflected tensions running high in the Black Sea peninsula since Russian troops — estimated by Ukrainian authorities to be 16,000 strong — tightened their grip over the weekend on the Crimean peninsula, where Moscow's Black Sea Fleet is based.
Ukraine has accused Russia of violating a bilateral agreement on conditions of a Russian lease of a naval base in Crimea that restricts troop movements, but Russia has argued that it was acting within the limits set by the deal.
Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, said Monday at the UN Security Council that Russia was entitled to deploy up to 25,000 troops in Crimea under the agreement. Churkin didn't specify how many Russian troops are now stationed in Crimea, but said that "they are acting in a way they consider necessary to protect their facilities and prevent extremist actions."
There was no sign of tensions elsewhere in Crimea early on Tuesday. A supposed Russian ultimatum for two Ukrainian warships to surrender or be seized passed without action from either side, as the two ships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Vladimir Anikin said late Monday that no ultimatum had been issued.
Early on Tuesday, the Kremlin said Putin ordered troops participating in military exercises alongside Russia's western border to return to their permanent bases. The order was in line with an earlier plan to complete the exercise early this week.
In Brussels, meanwhile, the ambassadors of NATO's 28 member nations will hold a second emergency meeting on Ukraine on Tuesday after Poland, which borders both Russia and Ukraine, invoked an article calling for consultations when a nation sees its "territorial integrity, political independence or security threatened," the alliance said in a statement.
U.S. President Barack Obama has said that Russia is "on the wrong side of history" in Ukraine and its actions violate international law. Obama said the U.S. was considering economic and diplomatic options that will isolate Russia, and called on Congress to work on an aid package for Ukraine.
In return, Russia's agricultural oversight agency issued a statement Tuesday declaring the reversal of its earlier decision to lift the ban on imports of U.S. pork. It said the existing U.S. system of checks don't guarantee its safety.
Putin's economic advisor, Sergei Glazyev, said that Russia can develop financial ties with other nations to offset any potential Western sanctions.
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