U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has condemned what he calls an "act of aggression" by Russia in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula, as he pledged U.S. economic help for the politically divided nation.
In remarks in Kyiv Tuesday, Kerry said it is clear that Russia has been "working hard on a pretext for being able to invade further" into the former Soviet republic. He also said it is not appropriate to invade a country and dictate one's aims "at the end of a barrel of a gun."
Kerry spoke after meeting with Ukraine's top officials and visiting the site of a memorial to protesters killed in clashes with security forces before Viktor Yanukovych was ousted as president.
The secretary said Western powers are not seeking confrontation, but he added that if Russia does not choose to de-escalate the situation through diplomatic means, the U.S. and its partners will have no choice but to isolate Russia politically and economically.
As Kerry arrived Tuesday, the Obama administration announced a $1 billion energy subsidy package for Ukraine. The United States and its European allies are looking into economic sanctions against Russia.
Earlier Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said his country is prepared to use all options to protect Russians in Ukraine. He added that he hopes Russia will not have to use force.
Mr. Putin called Ukraine's political power shift an "anti-constitutional coup and armed seizure of power," and said Mr. Yanukovych is still Ukraine's "legitimate" leader, although he said the ousted president has no political future.
President Putin's comments Tuesday come amid a growing crisis over Russia's military presence in the Ukrainian region of Crimea. Mr. Putin on Tuesday denied Russian troops had been sent into Crimea over the last week, insisting that the gunmen who have blockaded Ukrainian military units on the peninsula are "local self-defense forces," not Russian soldiers.
Ukrainian officials say Moscow has sent 16,000 troops into Crimea since last week.
Mr. Putin has ordered tens of thousands of troops taking part in military exercises in western Russia, near the Ukrainian border, to return to base. The exercises were scheduled to end, so it is unclear whether the move was intended to help ease tensions.
European Union foreign ministers have issued a Thursday deadline for Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back his troops or face punitive measures.
Crimea is a Black Sea peninsula placed under Ukrainian control in 1954 by then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. It remained part of Ukraine when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Crimea has a tiny border with Russia on its far eastern point, and the Crimean port of Sevastapol is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet. Most of the people living in Crimea are ethnic Russians, but the region also is home to ethnic Muslim Tatars, who generally show disdain for Russia.
Ukraine's troubles began in November, when President Yanukovych backed out of a trade deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties and economic aid from Russia. The move triggered weeks of pro-Western anti-government demonstrations in Kyiv and elsewhere in Ukraine, and forced the pro-Russian Yanukovych to flee the capital in late February.