SIMFEROPOL, Ukraine — Russia is not considering trying to make Crimea a part of Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday. Only people who live in Crimea can determine their future, he said.
However, Putin, speaking to a handful of reporters Tuesday in Moscow, was harshly critical of Kiev’s new leaders.
He said ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimate leader of the nation, and the country’s interim government is the result of an “anti-constitutional coup.”
He called the parliament in Ukraine “partly legitimate” but said the country’s acting president is not.
Putin also said that the shaky new government has destabilized the southern and eastern parts of the country since taking power, and that Yanukovych, who is wanted in Ukraine, did not give orders to shoot demonstrators during the protests that eventually led to his ouster.
Then, turning to the troop buildup in the Russian-dominated autonomous region of Crimea, Putin said Ukraine is a brotherly neighbor of Russia — and that the troops there have much in common. He also said Russian forces have not fired a shot since they crossed into Crimea.
He said any use of military force in Ukraine would be the last resort.
But if Russian-speaking citizens in the east of Ukraine ask for Russia’s help, Russia has the right “to take all measures to protect the rights of those people,” Putin said.
Military action, he said, would be “completely legitimate” because it was at the request of Yanukovych and in line with Russia’s duty to protect people with historic ties to Russia, both cultural and economic.
Putin said he does not believe Yanukovych has a political future.
He said any damage from sanctions imposed by the West against Russia over its actions in Ukraine would be multilateral.
Putin also pointed out what he sees as a double standard by leaders in the United States and other Western countries.
He said the United States acted in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya without a U.N. resolution authorizing that action or by “twisting” U.N. resolutions.
Earlier Tuesday, Russian troops taking part in military exercises near the Ukrainian border were ordered back to their bases Tuesday — but thousands of others remain in control of much of Crimea.
Putin ordered the troops’ return after six days of snap exercises at Ukraine’s doorstep. The move came the same day that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to discuss aid to the financially strapped country.
Putin said the exercises, which began Wednesday, were long planned and had nothing to do with events in Ukraine.
But his order was hardly a move to deescalate tension in Crimea.
Sergey Astahov, assistant to the head of the Ukraine Security Border Service, told CNN that Russian troops and vehicles still remain near Ukraine’s eastern border with Russia.
On Tuesday, a team from the International Monetary Fund is also expected in Kiev to begin a fact-finding mission that will look at possible financial help and necessary reforms.
The Ukrainian parliament ratified an agreement Tuesday to receive loans from the European Union worth 610 million euros, the equivalent of nearly $839 million. The parliament is based in Kiev, where many emphasize ties to the West, as opposed to people in eastern Ukraine, where loyalty to Russia runs deep.
U.S. President Barack Obama said Monday that the United States is examining a series of economic and diplomatic steps to “isolate Russia,” and he called on Congress to work with his administration on an economic assistance package for Ukraine.
Report: Ukrainian forces defect
An eerie standoff continued in Crimea on Tuesday, with no shot fired in anger on either side but tensions high.
The crisis has divided many in the majority ethnic Russian region, which hosts a major Russian naval base in the port of Sevastopol.
At least 700 Ukrainian soldiers and officers defected Tuesday, announcing their readiness to defend the population of Crimea, RIA Novosti said, citing a spokesman for the newly installed Crimean authority.
A reported ultimatum for Ukrainian forces to surrender to the Russian forces early Tuesday passed without incident, however.
Vladislav Seleznyov, head of the Ukranian Defense Ministry press office in Crimea, told CNN it had been largely quiet in Crimea overnight.
A group of pro-Russian Cossacks in civilian dress attempted to attack the Ukrainian naval headquarters in Sevastopol, Seleznyov said, but Ukrainian forces repelled the attack and no shots were fired.
Crimean Tatar TV also aired footage of a confrontation that took place Tuesday between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian forces at Belbek Air Base, near Sevastopol.
Russian forces are seen firing warning shots into the air, warning unarmed Ukrainian soldiers from approaching them. The Ukrainians are seen walking toward the Russians carrying a Soviet-era military banner and Ukrainian flag. At one point, a Ukrainian leading the troops refers to the two sides as “brother nations” and calls for negotiations.
The commander of the Belbek base, Yuli Mamchun, told CNN his forces had received a demand to put down their weapons by noon local time. They have refused to comply, he said, adding that it was the latest in long line of demands.
Mamchun said a number of men dressed as Ukraine’s notorious Berkut riot police were at the entrance to the base. The country’s interim authorities disbanded the elite police unit soon after taking office.
On Monday evening, Russian troops also moved into the Russian side of a narrow sea channel dividing Russia and Crimea, opposite the Ukrainian city of Kerch.
Russia ordered the surprise military exercises on Ukraine’s doorstep Wednesday, saying they were intended to check its troops’ combat readiness.
On Tuesday, Peskov said that Putin had ordered the troops’ return after he was briefed on the success of the exercises. Russia insisted that the exercises, which involved more than 150,000 troops, were always meant to end on March 3.
The military maneuvers are not just on land.
The flagship of the Ukrainian navy’s Black Sea Fleet, the frigate Hetman Saraidachny, is headed back to the Black Sea, the Ukrainian Consulate in Istanbul said. Ukrainian nationals in Istanbul are expected to gather on the banks of the Bosporus later Tuesday to cheer the ship as it passes.
Earlier Tuesday, two Russian warships steamed up the Bosporus toward the Black Sea.
‘Chaos and anarchy’
At an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting Monday to discuss the unfolding crisis, Ukraine’s envoy asked for help, saying that Russia had used planes, boats and helicopters to flood the Crimean Peninsula with 16,000 troops in the past week.
“So far, Ukrainian armed forces have exercised restraint and refrained from active resistance to the aggression, but they are in full operational readiness,” Ukrainian Ambassador Yuriy Sergeyev said.
As diplomats at the meeting asked Russia to withdraw its troops and called for mediation to end the crisis, Russian Ambassador Vitaly Churkin insisted his country’s aims were preserving democracy, protecting millions of Russians in Ukraine and stopping radical extremists.
He said Yanukovych remains Ukraine’s elected leader and has asked Russia to send troops.
The Russian envoy read a letter from Yanukovych at the U.N. meeting, describing Ukraine as a country “on the brink of civil war,” plagued by “chaos and anarchy.”
U.S. Ambassador Samantha Power said Russia’s claims about the situation in Ukraine are untrue and warned that sending military forces “could be devastating.”
Yanukovych, she said, abandoned his post last month and was then voted out of office by Ukraine’s democratically elected parliament.
“Russian military action is not a human rights protection mission,” Power said. “It is a violation of international law.”
In weekend media interviews, Kerry similarly accused Russia of invading Ukraine on a “completely trumped-up pretext” and described Moscow’s actions as “a brazen act of aggression.”
Russia’s Foreign Ministry condemned his remarks late Monday, saying the secretary of state had made “unacceptable threats against Russia.”
CNN’s Matthew Chance and journalist Azad Safarov in Kiev contributed to this report.