Russian President Vladimir Putin gave his first public remarks on Ukraine today since ordering military troops to Crimea on March 1, defiantly affirming the Kremlin’s right to use all options in Ukraine, but adding “there is no reason yet” to use military force.
Speaking at a news conference in Moscow, Putin called Ukraine’s current leadership illegitimate, and the ouster of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych an “unconstitutional coup.” He denied that Russian troops were surrounding Crimea, despite reports otherwise, and dismissed photos of troops with Russian insignia in Crimea as insignificant, alleging that Russian uniforms can be easily bought in shops. Putin told reporters that he had spoken with Yanukovych two days earlier and that the ousted leader had denied giving orders for police to shoot protestors during the anti-government protests. Putin alleged that the snipers who killed dozens of protestors were working for the opposition — though he did not know for sure. He also implied that Kiev’s change in government meant that previous international agreements on Ukrainian sovereignty were now null.
In his remarks, Putin defended his threat to cut Ukraine’s gas subsidy, arguing that Ukraine had failed to pay the previous year’s bill. Russian gas giant Gazprom controls close to one-fifth of the world’s gas reserves and supplies Ukraine with more than half of its gas each year. About 80% of the gas Russia exports to Europe also passes through Ukraine, upping Russia’s stakes in Ukraine politics. Russia has repeatedly engaged in “gas wars” with Ukraine, threatening to cut subsidies as a means of asserting political pressure.
Putin also used familiar refrains to criticize the West, alleging that Western intelligence agencies had been behind the 2004 Orange Revolution against Yanukovych.
After Putin was done speaking, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kiev, one day after the White House offered a $1 billion aid package as a show of support for Ukraine’s interim government. In a statement, the White House pledged to support Ukraine in implementing economic reforms, holding fair elections, combating corruption, and “withstanding politically motivated trade actions by Russia, including in the area of energy.” President Barack Obama also on March 3 announced his intention to impose economic sanctions on high-level Russian officials involved in Crimea’s military occupation. The White House has said that it is holding off on military options, but has already called off trade talks and indefinitely suspended military ties.
An estimated 16,000 Russian troops have been mobilized in the Crimean peninsula since March 1. Some have occupied Ukrainian military bases and taken over local municipality buildings.