Breaking days of silence since his forces entered Ukraine’s Crimea last week, Russian president Vladimir Putin denied in a news conference on Tuesday that the soldiers there were Russian. The uniformed troops, who carried no national insignia but spoke Russian and drove vehicles with Russian license plates, were “local self-defense forces,” he claimed.
“As for bringing in forces, for now there is no such need but such a possibility exists,” said the Russian leader. “It would naturally be the last resort.”
Putin justified the possibility of military intervention by saying there had been a coup in Kiev and Ukraine’s legitimate president, Viktor Yanukovich, had asked for Russia’s help.
Yanukovich fled to Russia last week after months of protests against his decision to scuttle a trade agreement with the European Union in favor of deeper ties with Russia. While his ouster was largely welcomed in the west of the country, ethnic Russians in the east were appalled and staged pro-Russia demonstrations. Russian media portrayed the population of the Crimea, a region that was part of the Russian Empire for almost two centuries before Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred it to Ukraine in 1954, as victims of the new government, carrying reports of Ukrainian hooligans burning down the homes of Russian speakers.
Russia already had thousands of soldiers in the Crimea which headquarters its Black Sea Fleet. Airplanes delivered more military personnel before the weekend while helicopters were seen flying toward the port city of Sevastopol where troops disarmed garrisons of Ukrainian border guards. Warning shots were fired in a confrontation with Ukrainian servicemen on Tuesday and Russian navy ships were reported to have blockaded the strait separating the Black Sea peninsula from Russia.
The Russian upper house of parliament on Saturday gave Putin permission to invade Ukraine in order to protect the lives of Russian citizens and their “compatriots.”
The need to protect Russian citizens was also used as a justification by Putin in 2008 to invade neighboring Georgia, after the Caucasus republic had attempted to reassert control over its breakaways regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia which Russia subsequently recognized as independent states.