Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday justified his country’s intervention in the Crimea region of neighboring Ukraine as necessary to protect Russian citizens from what he called an “unconstitutional coup” by protesters in Kiev.
Putin, in his first public remarks since Russian forces moved on Crimea late last week, declared that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych is Ukraine’s legitimate leader and was deposed in “an armed seizure of power.” But while Putin was adamant that the Russian military incursion was justified, he was vague when discussing the initial waves of troops in Crimea who have been photographed with no insignia on their uniforms. “They were self-defense teams,” Putin said, adding that one can buy Russian uniforms in shops. He denied that Russian forces were surrounding bases in Crimea, despite several reports to the contrary, and said he was “not concerned about war breaking out; we are not going to be fighting Ukraine.”
President Barack Obama responded to Putin’s defense on Tuesday with a repeated condemnation of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, saying the country deserves the right to its own sovereignty and self-governance. “Mr Putin can throw a lot of words out there, but the facts on the ground indicate that right now he’s not abiding by that principle,” Obama said.
The president also pushed back against suggestions that Russia had won a strategic victory by throwing its weight around in Ukraine. “This has not been a sign of strength but rather is a reflection that countries near Russia have deep concerns and suspicions about this kind of meddling,” he said. “If anything, it will push many countries further away from Russia.”
Secretary of State John Kerry echoed Obama’s remarks in a press conference during a visit to Kiev. “There is nothing strong about what Russia is doing,” he said. Instead, Russia is “out of excuses, hiding its hand behind falsehoods, intimidation and provocations.”
“If Russia does not choose to de-escalate, and is not willing to work directly with the government of Ukraine, the United States and our partners will have absolutely no choice but to expand upon steps to isolate Russia, politically, diplomatically, and economically,” he said. “This is not something we are seeking to do. It is something Russia is forcing us to do.”
Shortly after Putin spoke, NATO announced that a special council of Western and Russian diplomats will meet Wednesday to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine, the Associated Press reports.
Putin’s news conference seemed intended both to diffuse discussion of imminent war, but also to leave the door open for future military action. He said that he did not intend to make Crimea part of Russia, but would leave the peninsula to self-determination. However, he discussed screening possible presidential candidates so “some nationalist punk” does not “fly out like a jack in the box.”
His comments came just hours after Putin ordered tens of thousands of troops who had conducted military drills near Ukraine’s border to return to their permanent bases. The massive exercises, which involved a reported 150,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and more than 80 naval vessels, were scheduled to wrap up after the weekend.
In Crimea, Russian troops who took Belbek air base fired warning shots in the air as 300 reportedly unarmed Ukrainian soldiers demanded their jobs back. There were no reports of any casualties from the tense standoff, the Associated Press, which reflects high tensions as an estimated 16,000 Russian troops consolidate their hold on the peninsula.
Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are headed to the region, the Telegraph reports. The observers are expected to deliver a report on the situation, which has been tense but not yet violent. Andriy Parubiy, Ukraine’s top security official who earned the nickname “commander of Maidan” during protests in Kiev last month, said that the situation in Crimea was complicated but stable.
This story was updated with remarks made Tuesday by President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry.