President Putin broke a 10-day silence on Ukraine, telling reporters Tuesday that Russia has no intention to annex Crimea, the Ukrainian Black Sea peninsula now controlled by Russian soldiers.
“Regarding the deployment of troops, the use of armed forces, there is no need for it, but the possibility remains,” he told reporters gathered at the presidential residence outside of Moscow.
Earlier Tuesday, he ordered back to barracks 150,000 Russian soldiers who had gathered in western Russia for a week of maneuvers. These air and land drills involved 20 percent of Russia’s military and had caused alarm in neighboring Ukraine.
Some analysts welcomed the two moves as cutting tensions after a week of Cold War style brinkmanship.
Lilit Gevorgyan, a Russia analyst in London for IHS, the consulting company says “Clearly saying that he is not interested in - or that his country is not interested in - annexation of Crimea and that the military drills are called off - are good steps. They are positive steps.”
Right to intervene
But Putin stressed that he retains the right to militarily intervene in Ukraine if Russian-speakers are at risk. On Saturday, Russia’s Duma voted unanimously to allow Mr. President to send Russian soldiers anywhere in Ukraine.
"Even if we make the decision, if I make the decision to use military force, it will be legitimate," Putin told reporters.
Russia’s president questioned the validity of a treaty that his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, signed 20 years ago, which promised to respect Ukraine’s territorial integrity.
Putin said the Ukrainian state that existed when the treaty was signed no longer exists because a revolution has taken place in the country, and that Russia has no treaty obligations to the new Ukrainian state.
In that vein, Putin also denounced Ukraine’s current leaders as illegitimate and said Ukraine’s May 25 presidential elections will be illegitimate.
Yanukovych: legitimate, but no future
He said that Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s deposed president, is the nation’s legitimate president. The Russian leader said Yanukovych wrote him a letter from exile in Russia last week, asking him to send Russian troops to Ukraine to restore order. At a press conference in southern Russia last Friday, Yanukovych said Russia should act in Ukraine, but did not call for Russian soldiers.
Putin said he met with the former Ukrainian leader two days ago but put to rest any speculation that he has political plans for the exiled leader.
“I don’t think he has a political future, and I told him that,” the Russian leader said. “We only took him out of humanitarian reasons. Death is the simplest way to get rid of a legitimate president, and I think they would have just killed him.”
At the hour-long press conference outside Moscow, Putin became increasingly harsh.
Asked who Ukraine’s next president could be, he responded: “The danger exists that some nationalist, semi-fascist type ... some anti-Semite, will pop out like a devil from a snuffbox.”
He claimed that meddling American advisors stirred up peaceful Ukrainians.
“They sit there across the pond,” he said of American officials. ”Sometimes it seems they feel like they’re in a lab, and they’re running all sorts of experiments on the rats, without understanding the consequences of what they’re doing.”
Threat of war persists
In Washington, Andrew Weiss, the Carnegie Endowment’s vice president for Russia studies, watched the press conference. He said he does not believe the threat of war has lifted.
"In Eastern Ukraine, we see rent-a-mobs and indications of the Russian population there being stirred up, takeovers of government buildings and the like,” he said of the pro-Russian demonstrations. “Again, all this is about: will the Russian provocations lead the Ukrainian government to feel it has no choice but to respond? And that would form the pretext for some sort of form of Russian military action."
Crimea remains a flashpoint. On Tuesday Russian soldiers fired shots over the heads of unarmed Ukrainian soldiers who were trying to march to their air base.
Lilit Gevorgyan again: “Sometimes when you have troops on the ground it can take one spark on the ground for events to spiral out of control. But to me, there seems to be an understanding on both sides, that this is not the best way for either country.”
In other worrying signs, Crimea’s new pro-Russian administration on Monday shut down Chernomorskaya TV and radio, the largest independent broadcaster on the peninsula. At the end of this month, Crimeans are to vote in a referendum on the region’s future status.
Further stirring the pot, Crimea’s new authorities say they have received inquiries from officials in three Russian-speaking cities in southern Ukraine, including the port of Odessa, asking if they could join their separatist movement.