Ukraine latest: President Putin warns Russia reserves all rights to protect citizens after 'anti-constitutional coup'

Russian President warns any sanctions from West would be 'counter-productive'

The Russian President Vladimir Putin has described the unrest in Ukraine as an “anti-constitutional coup and armed seizure of power” and said Russia will reserve all rights to protect citizens in the eastern part of the country.

In his first press conference since the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych was ousted, a seemingly relaxed Mr Putin said there was currently no need to send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine.

However, describing the country as Russia’s "closest neighbour, our fraternal nation”, he warned Russia would take all measures necessary to protect Ukraine's citizens if they requested help.

“They [Ukrainian citizens] are upset by such lawlessness, and if we see that such lawlessness in eastern regions, and people ask for our assistance, we allow ourselves all measures necessary to protect these citizens.”

But he insisted that any intervention would be used legitimately as a last resort and would be within the framework of international law.

Responding to the potential threat of sanctions from the US and its Western allies, Mr Putin warned that "in this tightly connected world we can of course harm each other - but it will be mutual harm, and they need to think about that."

Any threats against Russia would be "counter-productive", he added.

During the news conference in his Moscow residence, Mr Putin said Russia would provide financial assistance to Crimea, but refused to reveal how much.

He asserted that Mr Yanukovych is still the legitimate president of Ukraine and warned Ukraine had made a serious mistake by going “beyond the constitutional field”.

There are only three ways a president can leave power in Ukraine - through death, resignation, or impeachment, he continued. Therefore, he said, Mr Yanukovych, from a legal perspective, is still the legitimate president and had fulfilled all conditions of a 21 February agreement with the opposition.

“Yanukovych agreed to everything the opposition demanded, effectively surrendering power, but he stood no chance of re-election”, Mr Putin added, telling the press conference: "I don't think he has a political future."

Russia offered him assistance because of humanitarian reasons, as otherwise Mr Yanukovych would simply "have been killed".

He said Russia was ready to host a G8 summit as planned this year but if western leaders did not want to come "they don't need to".

In Crimea, Russian soldiers are not responsible for surrounding Ukrainian military bases, which are instead being occupied by pro-Russian armed men. "There are many military uniforms. Go into any local shop and you can find one," he said.

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Ukraine's ambassador claimed some 16,000 strong tightened their grip on Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula yesterday.

Soldiers controlled all Crimean border posts, as well as military facilities in the territory and a ferry terminal in the city of Kerch, just 20 kilometers (12 miles) across the water from Russia.

Mr Putin insisted military exercises near the border between western Russia and Ukraine were unrelated to the current events and had in fact been planned months before the crisis in Ukraine escalated.

"Military manoeuvres which we were conducting were not connected to what is happening in Ukraine – we actually planned it a long time ago but clearly we would not announce it", he told journalists. "As soon as the manoeuvres were over, we issued an order to pull back all the troops to their station."

Additional reporting by agencies

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