By Vladimir Isachenkov
and Tim Sullivan
MOSCOW: Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis Tuesday, saying Russia has no intention “to fight the Ukrainian people” but reserves the right to use force.
As the Russian president held court in his personal residence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiev’s fledgling government and urged Putin to stand down.
“It is not appropriate to invade a country, and at the end of a barrel of a gun dictate what you are trying to achieve,” Kerry said. “That is not 21st-century, G-8, major nation behavior.”
Although nerves remained on edge in the Crimean Peninsula, with Russian troops firing warning shots to ward off Ukrainian soldiers, global markets jumped higher on tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict. Kerry brought moral support and a $1 billion aid package to a Ukraine fighting to fend off bankruptcy.
Lounging in an armchair before Russian tricolor flags, Putin made his first public comments since the Ukrainian president fled a week and a half ago. It was a signature Putin 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 U.S. 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. Ukraine is a friendly state.”
Still, 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. At the same time, the U.S. and 14 other nations formed a military observer mission to monitor the tense Crimea region, and the team was headed there in 24 hours.
U.S. aid package
While the threat of military confrontation retreated somewhat, both sides ramped up economic feuding. Russia hit its nearly broke neighbor with a termination of discounts on natural gas, while the U.S. announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine.
“We are going to do our best. 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.”
Russia took over the Crimean Peninsula on Saturday, placing its troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.
On Tuesday morning, Russian troops, who had taken control of the Belbek air base, fired warning shots into the air as some 300 Ukrainian soldiers who previously manned the airfield demanded their jobs back. As the Ukrainians marched unarmed toward the base, about a dozen Russian soldiers told them not to approach, then fired several shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued toward them.