MOSCOW (AP) — Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis in his first comments since its president fled, saying Russia has no intention "to fight the Ukrainian people" but reserved the right to use force. As the Russian president held court Tuesday in his personal residence, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Kiev's fledgling government and Moscow agreed to sit down with NATO.
Although nerves remained on edge in Crimea, with Russian troops firing warning shots to ward off Ukrainian soldiers, global markets catapulted higher on tentative signals that the Kremlin was not seeking to escalate the conflict. Kerry brought moral support and a $1 billion aid package to a Ukraine fighting to fend off bankruptcy.
Lounging in an arm-chair before Russian tricolor flags, Putin delivered a characteristic 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 U.S. role in Ukraine to an experiment with "lab rats."
But the overall message appeared to be one of de-escalation: "It seems to me (Ukraine) is gradually stabilizing," Putin said. "We have no enemies in Ukraine. Ukraine is a friendly state." 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.
While the threat of military confrontation retreated somewhat Tuesday, both sides ramped up economic feuding in their struggle over Ukraine: Russia hit its nearly broke neighbor with a termination of discounts on natural gas, while the U.S. announced a $1 billion aid package in energy subsidies to Ukraine.