Russia does not plan to invade, says Putin

Russian leader says opposition in Kiev took power by force in ‘unconstitutional coup’

Russian president  Vladimir Putin said his country was not planning to invade Ukraine but it retained the option to send in troops as a last resort. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

Russian president Vladimir Putin said his country was not planning to invade Ukraine but it retained the option to send in troops as a last resort. Photograph: Alexei Druzhinin/RIA Novosti/Kremlin


Russia’s president Vladimir Putin moved to defuse international tensions yesterday, saying there was no need to send Russian forces to Ukraine at present. However, he retained the option to do so as a last resort.

Speaking to the press for the first time since the crisis erupted, Mr Putin said the opposition in Kiev had seized power by force in an “unconstitutional coup”.

He said Viktor Yanukovich, the ousted Ukrainian president, was the rightful leader of the country, and should be allowed to resume his duties.

Mr Putin said Russia had not deployed armed forces in the Crimea and had no plans at present to annex the peninsular. Troops wearing unmarked uniforms in Crimea were “local militias”, not Russian forces as observers on the scene had claimed. “Look at the former Soviet republics. You can go to a store and buy a uniform,” he said.

Russia had, however, beefed up security at defence installations in Crimea that were home to the Black Sea fleet. “We hope we won’t be obliged to do anything like that in eastern Ukraine. We don’t want to interfere, but all Ukrainians should have equal rights in shaping the future of the country.”

Military exercises
Early yesterday Mr Putin ordered troops who had been engaged in military exercises in western Russia this week to return to their barracks.

The war games, which have sparked fears that Russia was readying to invade eastern Ukraine, had been planned long before the crisis erupted, he told reporters.

Mr Putin said the new authorities in Kiev had usurped power, and did not have a legal mandate to conduct domestic or foreign policy or decide the future of Ukraine.

Mr Yanukovich was still the legitimate president of Ukraine even though “I have told him he has no chance of getting re-elected”.

There were only three ways for a president legally to exit power: “death, impeachment or personal resignation”, Mr Putin said.

He accused the US of meddling in Ukrainian affairs and stoking the political crisis that had delivered the country into chaos.

“It’s not the first time our western partners have done this in Ukraine. I sometimes get the impression that someone is sitting in a laboratory on the other side of the big pond and conducting some kind of experiment on rats with no understanding of the consequences of what they are doing. Why is it necessary to do this?”

Asked to comment on western governments’ threat to slapimpose penalties on Russia, Mr Putin said sanctions would be counterproductive. Russia would continue to prepare to host the G8 summit in Sochi in June even if some of the world’s leading industrialised countries were considering boycotting the event. “If they don’t want to come, there’s no need.”

Adding to pressure on the new authorities in Kiev, Gazprom, Russia’s state natural gas monopoly, said it would remove the discount on Russian gas supplies to Ukraine next month unless the country settled its gas debts.

Gazprom offered Ukraine cut-price gas as part of a deal that saw Mr Yanukovich ditch plans to sign a trading agreement with the European Union in November and instead accept a $15 billion (€10.9bn) bailout from Russia. After Mr Yanukovich was ousted, Russia took the bailout off the table.

Mr Putin said the return to higher prices was not politically motivated. “We gave money and reduced the gas price but there are no payments.”

Dmitry Medvedev, Russia’s prime minister, ordered the Russian finance ministry to assess the possibility of granting Ukraine a €1.45-€2.18 billion loan to help repay debts to Gazprom. “Those who don’t pay for goods supplied must understand they will face consequences and may lose shipments on easy terms.”