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Putin insists Russia will reserve the right to use force in Ukraine

March 4, 2014 at 6:02 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The president of Russia spoke out today on the Ukraine crisis, for the first time since effectively taking over Crimea.

Vladimir Putin alternately defended his country’s actions, and tried to ease international concerns on a day of conflicting signals.

In Crimea, Russian forces occupying an air base fired warning shots today to disperse unarmed Ukrainian servicemen. In Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the situation is gradually stabilizing. He insisted that local self-defense forces, not Russian troops, had seized Ukrainian bases. And he announced an end to military exercises in Western Russia.

Still, he insisted his government reserves the right to use force to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, Russia (through interpreter): If we see that lawlessness starting in the eastern regions too, if people ask us for help, we reserve the right to use all options at our disposal to protect those citizens.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On politics, the Russian leader said Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimate president of Ukraine, but acknowledged he has no political future. And Putin suggested Moscow might reject the results of any new elections.

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN, (through interpreter): It depends on how they will be held. If they are held in the same terror that we see now in Kiev, then we won’t recognize.

JUDY WOODRUFF: In Washington, President Obama flatly rejected Putin’s justifications for Russia’s actions.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: President Putin seems to have different set of lawyers making a different set of interpretations. But I don’t think that’s fooling anybody. I think everybody recognizes that, although Russia has legitimate interests in what happens in a neighboring state, that doesn’t give it the right to use force as a means of exerting influence inside of that state.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ukraine’s new prime minister, speaking in Kiev, also demanded the Russians back off, while announcing the two sides are now talking.

ARSENIY YATSENYUK, Prime Minister, Ukraine (through interpreter): We are once again calling on Russia to stop military aggression on the territory of Ukraine. Ukraine is ready to renew and moderate a new style of relations. We have begun consultations at the ministerial level between the governments of Ukraine and Russia.

PROTESTERS: Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

JUDY WOODRUFF: All of this as Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev’s foggy Independence Square, paying tribute to protesters who died in sniper attacks. He condemned what he called Russia’s act of aggression.

JOHN KERRY, Secretary of State: It is not appropriate to invade a country and, at the end of a barrel of a gun, dictate what you are trying to achieve.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kerry also met with Ukraine’s interim leaders, and announced a $1 billion economic package for the new government.

Meanwhile, there was more talk in the West of imposing sanctions on Russia, even as Moscow warned it would retaliate.

Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov spoke during a visit to Tunisia.

SERGEI LAVROV, Foreign Minister, Russia (through interpreter): On our sanctions, we have always opposed unilateral sanctions. They never lead to anything good, and I hope that our partners understand that this is counterproductive to political activity.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Russia did agree to meet with NATO representatives tomorrow to discuss Ukraine. And Russian and world markets rose on those developments and Putin’s words.