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Russian commanders had declared their military exercise in south-west Russia complete, and the troops had been withdrawn to their barracks.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
Voices
There will be a chance to bid for a rare example of the SAS Diary, collated by a former member of the regiment in the aftermath of World War II but only published – in a limited run of just 5,000 – in 2011
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm today
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Bianca Miller and Katie Bulmer-Cooke are scrutinised by Lord Sugar's aide Nick Hewer on The Apprentice final
tvBut Bianca Miller has taken on board his comments over pricing
Life and Style
Approaching sale shopping in a smart way means that you’ll get the most out of your money
life + styleSales shopping tips and tricks from the experts
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
News
Elton John and David Furnish exchange marriage vows
peopleSinger posts pictures of nuptials throughout the day
News
in picturesWounded and mangy husky puppy rescued from dump
News
newsAstonishing moment a kangaroo takes down a drone
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

Recruitment Genius: Sales Administrator

£16000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Administrator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: EWI / IWI Installer

£23000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of design...

Ashdown Group: IT Support Analyst - Chessington

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Service Desk Analyst - Chessington, Surrey...

Recruitment Genius: Technical Support Analyst / Helpdesk Support Analyst

£16000 - £19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is the UK's leading ...

Day In a Page

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'