TIME Ukraine

Putin Calls Ukraine Uprising ‘Unconstitutional’

Russian President Putin takes part in a news conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow
Russian President Vladimir Putin at a news conference at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow, on March 4, 2014. Alexei Nikolskiy—RIA Novosti/Kremlin/ Reuters

Russian leader asserts the right to protect Russian citizens in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday justified his country’s intervention in the Crimea region of neighboring Ukraine as necessary to protect Russian citizens from what he called an “unconstitutional coup” by protesters in Kiev.

Putin, in his first public remarks since Russian forces moved on Crimea late last week, declared that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych is Ukraine’s legitimate leader and was deposed in “an armed seizure of power.” But while Putin was adamant that the Russian military incursion was justified, he was vague when discussing the initial waves of troops in Crimea who have been photographed with no insignia on their uniforms. “They were self-defense teams,” Putin said, adding that one can buy Russian uniforms in shops. He denied that Russian forces were surrounding bases in Crimea, despite several reports to the contrary, and said he was “not concerned about war breaking out; we are not going to be fighting Ukraine.”

Shortly after Putin spoke, NATO announced that a special council of Western and Russian diplomats will meet Wednesday to discuss the latest developments in Ukraine, the Associated Press reports.

Putin’s news conference seemed intended both to diffuse discussion of imminent war, but also to leave the door open for future military action. He said that he did not intend to make Crimea part of Russia, but would leave the peninsula to self-determination. However, he discussed screening possible presidential candidates so “some nationalist punk” does not “fly out like a jack in the box.”

His comments came just hours after Putin ordered tens of thousands of troops who had conducted military drills near Ukraine’s border to return to their permanent bases. The massive exercises, which involved a reported 150,000 troops, hundreds of tanks and more than 80 naval vessels, were scheduled to wrap up after the weekend.

In Crimea, Russian troops who took Belbek air base fired warning shots in the air as 300 reportedly unarmed Ukrainian soldiers demanded their jobs back. There were no reports of any casualties from the tense standoff, the Associated Press, which reflects high tensions as an estimated 16,000 Russian troops consolidate their hold on the peninsula.

Observers from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe are headed to the region, the Telegraph reports. The observers are expected to deliver a report on the situation, which has been tense but not yet violent. Andriy Parubiy, Ukraine’s top security official who earned the nickname “commander of Maidan” during protests in Kiev last month, said that the situation in Crimea was complicated but stable.

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