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03/04/2014 06:10 am ET | Updated Mar 04, 2014

Ukraine Conflict: Vladimir Putin Said He Hopes Russia Won't Have To Use Force In Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin said Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians in Ukraine, but hopes Russia won't have to use force.

"If I decide to use armed forces it will be in line with international law," Putin said.

During a news conference on Tuesday, Putin described the recent turmoil in Ukraine as an anti-constitutional coup, and said that while the Ukrainian parliament was legitimate, acting President Olexander Turchynov was not.

Putin also noted that if Ukraine holds new elections, the results will not be acknowledged by Russia.

"If they are held under such terror as we see now, then we won't (recognize them)," Putin said.

Former Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych, who is accused of mass crimes against the protesters who stood up for months against his rule, did not give orders to shoot the demonstrators, Putin claimed.

Yanukovych sent a letter to Putin asking him to use the Russian military to restore law and order in his country, Reuters reported.

Putin did not acknowledge having any troops in Ukraine, the Washington Post reported, and insisted that the troops in the Crimea who were wearing green uniforms without insignia and driving unmarked vehicles were not Russian.

Putin did say Russia had agreed to shelter Yanukovych to save his life.

On Monday, the Ukrainian government said Russia had deployed 16,000 troops to Crimea and demanded that local forces lay down their arms. Russian fighter jets twice violated Ukraine's air space over the Black Sea, and the Black Sea Fleet told Ukrainian forces in Crimea to surrender by 5 a.m. on Tuesday or face a military action.

President Barack Obama described the Russian advance as a violation of international law, and called on Congress to approve an aid package for the new Ukrainian government.

The United States also suspended military ties to Russia and prepared to impose sanctions on high-level Russian officials involved in the military occupation of Crimea, The New York Times reported.

Russia dismissed talks of sanctions and said it was only trying to protect its interests and those of Russians in Ukraine. Putin also noted that sanction attempts would backfire on the West.

And yet, early Tuesday, Putin had ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine's border to return to their bases.

MORE FROM THE ASSOCIATED PRESS:

MOSCOW (AP) — Accusing the West of encouraging an "unconstitutional coup" in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow reserves the right to use its military to protect Russians there but hopes it doesn't have to. The Russian leader's first comments on Ukraine since its fugitive president fled came as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev to meet with Ukraine's new government.

Putin declared that Western actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy and warned that any sanctions the West might place on Russia for its actions there will backfire.

"We aren't going to fight the Ukrainian people," Putin said, adding that Russian military maneuvers involving 150,000 troops near Ukraine's border had been planned and were unrelated to the current situation in Ukraine. He ordered the troops back to their bases Tuesday.

The U.S., meanwhile, announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine, which faces a looming financial disaster. NATO members met in Brussels and said the alliance would hold talks Wednesday with Russian officials about Ukraine. World markets rose, buoyed by Putin's apparent efforts to de-escalate tensions.

"We are going to do our best (to help you). We are going to try very hard," Kerry said in Kiev. "We hope Russia will respect the election that you are going to have."

Tensions remained high in Crimea, with troops loyal to Moscow firing warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers. Heavily armed Russian forces have taken over the strategic peninsula, surrounding its ferry, military bases and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.

The new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev, which Putin does not recognize, has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea, which Putin denies.

"Those unknown people without insignia who have seized administrative buildings and airports ... what we are seeing is a kind of velvet invasion," Russian military analyst Alexander Golts told The Associated Press in Moscow.

Yet world markets recovered from their fright over Ukraine, clawing back a large chunk of Monday's stock losses, while oil, gold, wheat and the Japanese yen gave back some gains. In New York, the Dow Jones Industrial Average surged 200 points Tuesday on the news that Putin had pulled troops away from Ukraine's border.

"Confidence in equity markets has been restored as the standoff between Ukraine and Russia is no longer on red alert," said David Madden, market analyst at IG.

Speaking from his residence outside Moscow, Putin said he still considers Viktor Yanukovych to be Ukraine's president and hopes that Russia won't need to use force in predominantly Russian-speaking eastern Ukraine.

Putin also insisted that the Russian military deployment in Crimea has remained within the limits set by a bilateral agreement on a Russian military base there. He said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, but insisted its residents have the right to determine the region's status in a referendum later this month.

Putin accused the West of using Yanukovych's decision in November to ditch a pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia to encourage the months of protests that drove him from power and put Ukraine's future in turmoil.

"We have told them a thousand times 'Why are you splitting the country?'" he said.

Yet he acknowledged that Yanukovych has no political future and said Russia gave him shelter only to save his life. Ukraine's new government wants to put the fugitive leader on trial for the deaths of over 80 people during protests in Kiev.

At the House of Commons in London, British Foreign Minister William Hague rejected Putin's arguments.

"The suggestion that a president who has fled his country then has any authority whatsoever to invite the forces of a neighboring country into that country is baseless," he told U.K. lawmakers.

Ukraine's dire finances were a key issue in the protests that drove Yanukovych from power. On Tuesday, Russia's state-controlled natural gas giant Gazprom said it will cancel a price discount on gas it sells to Ukraine. Russia had offered the discount in December as part of Russian help for Ukraine. Gazprom also said Ukraine owes it $1.5 billion.

Ukraine's finance minister, who says the country needs $35 billion to get through this year and next, was meeting with International Monetary Fund officials.

Crimea still remained a potential flashpoint. Troops who had taken control of the Belbek air base in Crimea fired warning shots into the air Tuesday as around 300 Ukrainian soldiers who previously manned the airfield demanded their jobs back.

About a dozen troops warned the Ukrainians, who were marching unarmed, not to approach. They then fired several warning shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued toward them. The Ukrainians identified the gunmen as Russian and their vehicle had Russian military plates.

Part of the compound was still being held by Ukrainians.

"We are worried. But we will not give up our base," said Capt. Nikolai Syomko, an air force radio electrician holding an AK-47 and patrolling the back of the compound. He said the soldiers felt they were being held hostage, caught between Russia and Ukraine.

"They have shown restraint, despite the invasion of the Ukrainian homeland and a Russian government that has chosen intimidation," Kerry said of the Ukrainian soldiers.

The new Ukrainian government says troops that have overtaken Belbek and other Ukrainian military bases across Crimea were Russian. Putin denied it, saying the men were self-defense forces answering to Crimea's pro-Russian regional government.

Putin said Ukraine's 22,000-strong force in Crimea has dissolved and its arsenals have fallen under the control of the local government. Those officials claimed Tuesday that 5,500 Ukrainian soldiers had switched allegiances from Kiev to them. They were also seeking to move up a vote planned for March 30 on the region's status.

Ukraine's prime minister placed the blame for the current crisis with Russia squarely on the Kremlin, but expressed hope that a negotiated solution could be found. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a news conference on Tuesday that both governments were talking again, albeit slowly.

"We hope that Russia will understand its responsibility in destabilizing the security situation in Europe, that Russia will realize that Ukraine is an independent state and that Russian troops will leave the territory of Ukraine," he said.

Russia is demanding the implementation of a Western-sponsored peace deal that Yanukovych signed with the opposition last month that set a new Ukrainian presidential election no later than December. Yanukovych fled the capital hours later and ended up in Russia, and the Ukrainian parliament then set the presidential vote for May 25.

The EU's 28 heads of state and government will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to decide whether to impose sanctions against Russia.

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine now at the Center for Complex Operations at the National Defense University, told the AP it was a critical time for Europe.

"It's a breach of international law, of national sovereignty, by a major power," Herbst said about Russia's actions in Crimea. "We haven't seen such a breach in Europe since the Nazis."

___

Sullivan reported from Crimea. Ivan Sekretarev in Sevastopol, Juergen Baetz in Brussels and Raul Gallego in Crimea contributed to this report.

For live updates:

03/25/2014 6:18 PM EDT

Senate To Vote Thursday On Ukraine Aid

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) set up a final vote Thursday on a bill that would provide Ukraine with up to $1 billion in loan guarantees and impose targeted sanctions against Russian officials.

Reid made the announcement Tuesday after dropping a controversial provision from the Senate bill that would have boosted the U.S. quota at the International Monetary Fund. Republicans in both chambers of Congress opposed the IMF reforms, which were specifically requested by the White House to increase Ukraine's borrowing capabilities at the institution.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said earlier Tuesday that Republicans would still want to vote on a number of amendments, but the IMF language was the major sticking point. Without it, the Ukraine aid package is expected to pass both the Senate and the House without much drama or delay.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

03/25/2014 5:24 PM EDT

Moldovan Separatists Claim They Downed Ukrainian Drone

From the Associated Press:

Authorities in a pro-Russian separatist region of Moldova claim to have brought down a Ukrainian drone on a reconnaissance mission.

NovostiPMR, the news agency of Trans-Dniester says Tuesday that the region's intelligence agency downed the drone on March 23.

The region broke away from Moldova in 1990. There are 1,500 Russian troops stationed there guarding hundreds of tons of weapons.

According to the agency, the drone was "launched from Ukrainian territory by people close to the Ukrainian Security Service and the Defense Ministry."

It said the plane illegally crossed into Trans-Dniester violating its air space. It added that the authorities in the region reserved the right to use "all available methods" to defend the territory which is not internationally recognized but is supported by Russia.

03/25/2014 4:18 PM EDT

Russians Take Over Last Ukrainian Ship In Crimea

Reuters reports:

Russian forces appeared to be attempting to take over the last military ship controlled by Ukraine in Crimea on Tuesday after a Ukrainian military spokesman reported explosions in its vicinity and helicopters approaching the vessel.

Russian forces armed with stun grenades and automatic weapons have seized ships and military bases from the last remaining Ukrainian troops in Crimea in recent days as part of Russia's largely bloodless annexation of the region.

Kiev, which calls Russia's annexation of Crimea illegal, ordered its remaining forces to withdraw for their own safety on Monday, but not all troops have yet left the Black Sea peninsula and some ships have been prevented from leaving.

"Around 1900 (1600 GMT) there were several explosions from the direction of the minesweeper Cherkasy in the Donuzlav bay," Ukrainian military spokesman Vladislav Seleznyov told Reuters.

"Some Mi-35 helicopter gunships were observed hovering in the area. Speedboats and a tug were seen approaching Cherkasy," he said.

On Monday Cherkasy attempted without success to break to the open sea through a blockade at the entrance to the inlet. The Russian navy blocked the route earlier this month by scuttling three hulks in the channel.

Seleznyov said he was unable to confirm whether Russian troops had boarded the ship.

03/25/2014 3:02 PM EDT

Russian Military Holds Exercises In Moldova

From Reuters:

Russia's military staged training exercises on Tuesday in Transdniestria, a breakaway sliver of Moldova that is a focus of tension following Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region.

NATO's top military commander said on Sunday he was worried that Russia might have its eye on Transdniestria, a largely Russian-speaking region that borders western Ukraine, after seizing Crimea, which has a narrow ethnic Russian majority.

The Interfax news agency quoted a spokesman for Russia's Western Military District, Colonel Oleg Kochetkov, as saying that Russian forces stationed in Transdniestria had "conducted an anti-terrorism drill and practiced operations to rebuff an attack on their military base".

Transdniestria, with a population of half a million, has run its own affairs since 1992 after fighting a brief war against the Moldovan government over fears that it might join Romania after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and Russia has a permanent garrison of peacekeepers there.

03/25/2014 1:02 PM EDT

No, Ukraine Will Not Have Nukes: Ministry Of Foreign Affairs

Ukraine's Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, in something of a Shermanesque statement, that the country will not develop nuclear weapons, one day after the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs seized on a proposal by some Ukrainian MPs to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Ukraine has not planned, is not planning and is not going to plan to resume its nuclear status," a spokesman for the agency said at a press briefing.

Earlier this month, several opposition MPs introduced a draft bill to withdraw Ukraine from the NPT. Russia's Foreign Ministry seized on it, saying "the dysfunctional new Kiev authorities may pose a threat to the security of Ukrainian nuclear sites under the current Ukrainian circumstances," in a statement.

"We do not trust attempts of the Ukrainian delegate to dissociate from this position. The NPT is in serious danger."

Ukraine, which suddenly became the world's third-largest nuclear state after the collapse of the Soviet Union, gave its nuclear arsenal back to Russia for disposal under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum in exchange for security assurances from Russia that it would respect Ukraine's territorial integrity.

--Luke Johnson

03/25/2014 12:34 PM EDT

Five Scenarios For Russia's Relations With China, Moldova And Nato

The world's industrialized nations have turned their back on Russia, following Moscow's annexation of Crimea.

Though the G8 cannot expel its members, countries can refuse a member permission to attend, effectively expelling them.

With jitters in the east of Europe about further Russian incursion, and wariness in China, the state of world diplomacy could look very different by 2015.

HuffPost UK has asked military and international relations experts on five scenarios that could occur now Russia looks increasingly isolated, and as the West looks impotent.

Read here what they predict.

03/25/2014 12:27 PM EDT

Senate Democrats Consider Dropping IMF Provision

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) may drop a controversial reform to the U.S. share at the International Monetary Fund from the Ukraine aid package, according to Senate leadership aides.

The provision was requested by President Barack Obama and Ukrainian leaders, but faces widespread opposition from Republicans. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday that his members would not support the aid bill unless the IMF language was dropped.

A Senate leadership aide said removing the provision is now "under consideration in order to move the bill." In exchange, Republicans would drop their demand to delay a Treasury Department rule that cracks down on the political activities of nonprofits, known as 501(c)(4)s.

The House of Representatives passed its own legislation providing aid to Ukraine earlier this month without the IMF reforms, and planned to move on a sanctions bill that also left the issue untouched. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has said boosting U.S. funds at the IMF has "nothing to do with Ukraine," and his aides indicated they would not have enough votes to move the Senate bill through the lower chamber in its current form.

The Obama administration and Senate Democrats have been making the case that ratifying the IMF reforms, which were agreed upon in 2010, is critical to Ukraine's borrowing capabilities in a time of crisis. Still, some House Democrats acknowledged that the White House was complicating the process by renewing debate over a contentious issue when providing aid expeditiously is of the utmost importance.

--Sabrina Siddiqui

03/25/2014 11:46 AM EDT

Obama Dismisses Romney's 'Geopolitical Foe' Comment

President Barack Obama dismissed the notion that former GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney was correct in saying that Russia was "our number one geopolitical foe" Tuesday, in a response to a question from Jonathan Karl of ABC News. He said that Russia was merely a "regional power" that was acting out of "weakness."

"Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength, but out of weakness. Ukraine has been a country in which Russia had enormous influence for decades, since the breakup of the Soviet Union, and we have considerable influence on our neighbors," he said. "We generally don't need to invade them in order to have a strong cooperative relationship with them."

--Luke Johnson

03/25/2014 11:26 AM EDT

Obama Says He's Not Interested In Putin's Motivation

At a press conference in Europe, U.S. President Barack Obama sidestepped a question on whether he "misread" Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying he wasn't so interested in his motivations.

"With respect to President Putin's motivation, I think there has been a lot of speculation. I am less interested in motivation and more interested in the facts and the principles that not only the United States but the entire international community are looking to uphold."

He added that the United States is "concerned" about further encroachment by Russia into Ukraine.

--Luke Johnson

03/25/2014 10:39 AM EDT

Will Russia Annex Moldova Next?

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