Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russianin Ukraine as US Secretary of State John Kerry was on his wayto Kiev.
Tensions remained high in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea with troops loyal to Moscow firing warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers.
In first comments since fugitive Ukraine President ViktorYanukovych fled Kiev, Putin said he considers him to still beUkraine’s leader, and hopes that Russia won’t need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine. Earlier, 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.
It came as Kerry was on his way to Kiev to meet with the new Ukrainian leadership that deposed a pro-Russian president,and has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea. The Kremlin, which does not recognise the new Ukrainian leadership, insists it made the move in order to protect Russian installations and its citizens living there.
Today, Russian troops who had taken control of the Belbekair 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 theUkrainians, who were marching unarmed, not to approach. They fired several warning shots into the air and said they wouldshoot the Ukrainians if they continued to march toward them.The shots reflected tensions running high in the Black Seapeninsula since Russian troops estimated by Ukrainianauthorities to be 16,000 strong tightened their grip over theweekend on the Crimean peninsula, where Moscow’s Black SeaFleet is based. Ukraine has accused Russia of violating a bilateralagreement on conditions of a Russian lease of a naval base inCrimea that restricts troop movements, but Russia has argued that it was acting within the limits set by the deal.