Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians in Ukraine as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev.
In his first comments since Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled Kiev, Putin said he considers him to still be Ukraine's leader, and hopes that Russia won't need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine, AP reported.
He also said that Russia would only use military force in Ukraine as a last resort, in remarks apparently intended to ease East-West tension over fears of war in the former Soviet republic.
He rejected the Western threat to punish Russia with sanctions over its action in Ukraine, saying they will backfire against the West.
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.
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.
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.
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 Defense Ministry spokesman Vladimir Anikin said late Monday that no ultimatum had been issued.
U.S. prepares $1b aid package for Ukraine
Meanwhile, the Obama administration readied economic sanctions against Russia on Tuesday as it formally announced an aid package of $1 billion in energy subsidies to Ukraine amid worries that Moscow would extend its military reach into the mainland of the former Soviet republic.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev for a five-hour show of support for the fledgling Ukraine government as it grapples with a military takeover of Crimea. Kerry also was to pay homage to the dozens of protesters who were slain Feb. 20 in anti-government demonstrations that days later ousted Yanukovych.
As Kerry arrived, the White House announced a package of energy aid, training for financial and election institutions, and anti-corruption efforts. U.S. officials traveling with Kerry also said the Obama administration is considering slapping Russia with unspecified economic sanctions as soon as this week.
Additionally, the officials said, the U.S. has suspended what was described as a narrow set of discussions with Russia over a bilateral trade investment treaty. It is also going to provide technical advice to the Ukraine government about its trade rights with Russia. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to be quoted by name before the official announcement was made.
‘U.S. faces consequences if sanctions imposed’
A Kremlin aide said on Tuesday that if the United States were to impose sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, Moscow might be forced to drop the dollar as a reserve currency and refuse to pay off any loans to U.S. banks, Reuters reported.
Sergei Glazyev, an adviser to the Kremlin who is often used by the authorities to stake out a hardline stance but does not make policy, added that if Washington froze the accounts of Russian businesses and individuals, Moscow would recommend that all holders of U.S. treasuries sell them.
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.
Subscribe to our RSS feed to stay in touch and receive all of TT updates right in your feed reader