Lounging in an armchair and appearing somewhat flustered, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday made his first public comments since Ukraine’s former president fled and Russian troops took over the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.
Putin said Moscow will use any means necessary to protect ethnic Russians in Ukraine—who he claims are suffering at the hands of the new regime in Kiev—but added that only as a last resort would he use force.
Tensions are still high in the region, but an alleged Tuesday deadline for Ukrainian troops in Crimea to surrender to their Russian counterparts came and went, relieving some fear that a bloodbath was imminent. Carrying the Ukrainian flag, about 100 Ukrainian soldiers marched unarmed toward Russian military units that responded by firing warning shots, creating a civil standoff.
At last count, close to 16,000 troops had descended upon the semi-autonomous Crimea, but massive Russian military exercises near the Ukrainian border appear to be coming to a close.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived on Tuesday in Kiev, the epicenter of a protest movement that rocked the capital for several months. In a visible sign of support for the country’s interim government and its determination to avoid being pulled into Moscow’s orbit, Kerry met with Ukraine’s leaders and pledged aid for the fledgling new government.
Washington today announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package for Ukraine in addition to anti-corruption endeavors and training for financial and educational institutions. The Obama administration is also considering a boycott of the G-8 summit scheduled for June in Sochi, Russia, and sanctions—a move Putin calls “counterproductive and harmful.”
The Russian president authorized the Crimea invasion under the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians from “armed, masked militants” wearing swastika-like emblems who are controlling Kiev. Ukrainians point out the absurdity of these accusations: The interim government in recent days has appointed several Jewish oligarchs to government posts in eastern Ukraine, Muslim Tatars from Crimea have rallied behind the new opposition-led government, and an Afghan native is helping spearhead a new movement of a free press.
The majority of the population in Crimea is ethnic Russian, and pro-Russian protests have spread across cities in eastern Ukraine, with activists raising Russian flags over several government buildings. But tens of thousands of Ukrainians flooded the streets of cities in the east over the weekend to prove that not everyone in that region supports Russia’s incursion into sovereign Ukrainian territory.
Moscow agreed to attend a NATO meeting tomorrow in Brussels to discuss the crisis, but the world is watching to see if Russia advances beyond Crimea and into Ukraine’s eastern mainland. Putin has refused to acknowledge the government in Kiev and shows no signs of backing out of the strategic peninsula.
Mychailo Wynnyckyj, a professor at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said the Kremlin may have visions of creating a “buffer zone” that would include Crimea, Donetsk, and Kharkiv: “They would have their own regional identity, and they would be nominally independent from Ukraine and Russia but would be a buffer between the two.”