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Putin talks tough as tensions ease in Ukraine

Russia steps back, agrees to Brussels meeting

A Russian Navy vessel blocked the entrance to the Ukrainian Navy base in Sevastopol. “We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state,’’ Vladimir Putin said.

ZURAB KURTSIKIDZE /European Pressphoto Agency

A Russian Navy vessel blocked the entrance to the Ukrainian Navy base in Sevastopol. “We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state,’’ Vladimir Putin said.

MOSCOW — Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis Tuesday, saying Russia has no intention ‘‘to fight the Ukrainian people’’ but reserves the right to use force.

Although nerves remained on edge in the Crimean Peninsula, with Russian troops firing warning shots to ward off Ukrainian soldiers, global markets jumped higher on tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict.

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Lounging in an arm chair before Russian tricolor flags in his personal residence, Putin made his first public comments since the Ukrainian president fled a week and a half ago. It was a signature Putin performance, filled with earthy language, macho swagger, and sarcastic jibes, accusing the West of promoting an ‘‘unconstitutional coup’’ in Ukraine. At one point he compared the US role to an experiment with ‘‘lab rats.’’

But the overall message appeared to be one of deescalation. ‘‘It seems to me” Ukraine “is gradually stabilizing,’’ Putin said. ‘‘We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state.’’

Still, he tempered those comments by warning that Russia was willing to use ‘‘all means at our disposal’’ to protect ethnic Russians in the country.

Significantly, Russia agreed to a NATO request to hold a special meeting to discuss Ukraine on Wednesday in Brussels, opening up a possible diplomatic channel in a conflict that still holds monumental hazards and uncertainties. At the same time, the United States and 14 other nations formed a military observer mission to monitor the tense Crimea region, and the team was headed there in 24 hours.

While the threat of military confrontation retreated somewhat, both sides ramped up economic feuding. Russia hit its nearly broke neighbor with a termination of discounts on natural gas, while the United States announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine.

World markets, which slumped the previous day, clawed back a large chunk of their losses on signs that Russia was backpedaling.

Russia took over the strategic Crimean Peninsula on Saturday, placing its troops around its ferry, military bases, and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.

The prime minister of Crimea said Tuesday that most Ukrainian military units on the peninsula had surrendered and had pledged allegiance to his pro-Russian government, and that local officials were working to speed up a referendum on independence.

Speaking at a news conference Tuesday morning, Prime Minister Sergei Aksyonov said that regional officials were in control of the security situation, even as standoffs continued between Russian forces and Ukrainian troops at several military installations, including a base near the airport of Belbek near Sevastopol.

In Kiev, the Ukrainian Defense Ministry flatly denounced the assertion of defections. “This information is false,” the ministry said in a statement, adding: “All the Ukrainian military units, formations, and warships stay in their permanent locations. Ukraine’s military controls the territories of their military posts.”

It was not possible to independently verify Aksyonov’s claims, and even he did not assert that all military units were now aligned with his administration. Yet, the Defense Ministry’s blanket denial — “all of the servicemen serve the Ukrainian people and do not even consider the proposals to defect” — seemed exaggerated.

At the Belbek air base, Russian troops, who had taken control, fired warning shots into the air as some 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.

As the Ukrainians marched unarmed toward the base, about a dozen Russian soldiers told them not to approach, then fired several shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued toward them.

The Ukrainian troops vowed to hold whatever ground they had left on the Belbek base.

Amid the tensions, the Russian military test-fired a Topol intercontinental ballistic missile. Fired from a launch pad in southern Russia, it hit a designated target on a range leased by Russia from Kazakhstan.

The new Ukrainian leadership in Kiev has accused Moscow of a military invasion in Crimea, which the Russian leader denied.

Ukraine’s prime minister expressed hope that a negotiated solution could be found. Arseniy Yatsenyuk told a news conference that both governments were gradually beginning to talk again.

‘‘We hope that Russia will understand its responsibility in destabilizing the security situation in Europe, that Russia will realize that Ukraine is an independent state and that Russian troops will leave the territory of Ukraine,’’ he said.

In his hourlong meeting with reporters, Putin said Russia had no intention of annexing Crimea, while insisting its residents have the right to determine the region’s status in a referendum later this month.

He said massive military maneuvers Russia has conducted involving 150,000 troops near Ukraine’s border were previously planned and unrelated to the current situation in Ukraine.

Russia said Putin had ordered the troops back to their bases.

Putin hammered away at his message that the West was to blame for Ukraine’s turmoil, saying its actions were driving Ukraine into anarchy.

American threats of punitive measures are ‘‘failure to enforce its will and its vision of the right and wrong side of history,’’ Russia’s Foreign Ministry said — a swipe at President Obama’s statement a day earlier that Russia was ‘‘on the wrong side of history.’’

In Washington, Obama shot back. Moves to punish Putin put the United States on ‘‘the side of history that, I think, more and more people around the world deeply believe in, the principle that a sovereign people, an independent people, are able to make their own decisions about their own lives.’’

Material from the New York Times was used in this report.
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