Ukraine crisis: President Putin won’t rule out force – but will not annex Crimea to Russia

 

Should the world be more worried after President Putin’s press conference today, when he condemned the overthrow of Viktor Yanukovych in Ukraine as illegal, denied there were extra Russian troops in Crimea, and stood by force as a last resort?

Or can the world perhaps rest a little easier? The relatively relaxed Vladimir Putin suggested an effort by the Russian leader to defuse some of the tension.

When William Hague and others stated on Monday, as a fact, that the Crimean peninsula was now under complete Russian control, it appeared that Mr Putin had given his many enemies in the West yet another excuse for misreading his intentions. Tensions rose to fever pitch – and the rouble and Russian shares dived.

There were reports that Russia had given the Ukrainian military a deadline for surrendering to Moscow.  Russian troops were said to be massing on Ukraine’s eastern border, while the first shots were fired (into the air) outside Belbek airbase – by Russian troops warning off an approaching group of 300 or so Ukrainian soldiers.

But, by the time Mr Putin held his press conference, the rumoured deadline for a surrender had passed without incident; Russian commanders had declared their military exercise in south-west Russia complete, and the troops had been withdrawn to their barracks. Mr Putin did not look like a man who was about to order, or precipitate, World War Three.

He had strong words for President Yanukovych’s ousting. He painted a picture of far-right bands of Ukrainians roaming the streets, potentially presenting a threat to Russian-speakers. He did not exclude eventual use of military force.

In between, however, Mr Putin sent some very different signals. Most notably, he said that Russia had no intention of “annexing” Crimea. This may come as a disappointment to more militant Russian-speakers in Crimea. It may also disappoint many of Mr Putin’s fellow countrymen, who regard Crimea as a Russian jewel.

But what that pledge says is that Mr Putin is not – at least not now – prepared to breach the terms of the Budapest declaration of 1994, when Russia, Britain and the US stood as guarantors of post-Soviet Ukraine’s independence and territorial integrity. Crimea is to hold a referendum on its status next month. Greater autonomy and independence may both be on the ballot paper. But not reunification with Russia. And if Mr Putin has ruled out the prospect of Crimea rejoining Russia, then it is more likely that he has also ruled out any change of status for the rest of Ukraine.

Mr Putin also made clear that he was not going out of his way to have Ukraine’s ousted President reinstated. Even as Mr Putin stressed the illegality of Mr Yanukovych’s removal, he qualified this as “in law”. As a lawyer, Mr Putin is on safe ground – Ukraine’s President had been elected in a contest judged by international observers to be reasonably fair. But he was equally clear that he regarded his erstwhile ally as finished.

Mr Putin also hinted that, for all his misgivings about the interim Ukrainian government, and his preference to return to the agreement underwritten by the three EU foreign ministers, and witnessed by Russia’s envoy, he could perhaps do business with the current administration – if it respected the rights of the country’s Russian-speakers.

This did not prevent Mr Putin from uttering strong words about the state of Ukraine’s economy, and the debts it had run up for Russian gas. Moves appeared to be afoot for the EU or US to clear Ukraine’s energy debt, though how feasible this would be was not clear.

Overall, there was nothing, either in what Mr Putin said or in his demeanour, to suggest a man hell-bent on restoring the Soviet empire by force. His tone and manner were quite different from the bleak and uncompromising statements that he and the then President, Dmitry Medvedev, had made in 2008, as Russia sent troops into Georgia.

At the same time, there must be caveats about how much safer the world is today than yesterday. Mr Putin described the use of force as a last resort, but he did not exclude it, if Russia judged that Ukraine’s Russian population was in danger – a term that can be elastic. And the situation on the ground remains extremely tense.

There is genuine fear among Russian-speakers of what the interim government portends. And the situation outside the Belbek airbase came perilously close to armed confrontation. One mistake, one shot fired in anger and not only could the conflagration be immediate, but there would be little, far away in Moscow, that Vladimir Putin could do to stop it.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: My client is an excellent, large partially ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Primary Teacher

£100 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Year 3 Teacher Birmingham Jan 2015...

Ashdown Group: Lead Web Developer (ASP.NET, C#) - City of London

£45000 - £50000 per annum + Excellent benefits: Ashdown Group: Lead Web Develo...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee