Russia is not considering trying to make Crimea a part of Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday. Only people who live in Crimea can determine their future, he said.
However, Putin, speaking to a handful of reporters Tuesday in Moscow, was harshly critical of Kiev's new leaders.
He said ousted Ukrainian leader Viktor Yanukovych is the legitimate leader of the nation, and the country's interim government is the result of an "anti-constitutional coup."
He called the parliament in Ukraine "partly legitimate" but said the country's acting president is not.
Putin also said that the shaky new government has destabilized the southern and eastern parts of the country since taking power, and that Yanukovych, who is wanted in Ukraine, did not give orders to shoot demonstrators during the protests that eventually led to his ouster.
Then, turning to the troop buildup in the Russian-dominated autonomous region of Crimea, Putin said Ukraine is a brotherly neighbor of Russia - and that the troops there have much in common. He also said Russian forces have not fired a shot since they crossed into Crimea.
He said any use of military force in Ukraine would be the last resort.
But if Russian-speaking citizens in the east of Ukraine ask for Russia's help, Russia has the right "to take all measures to protect the rights of those people," Putin said.
Military action, he said, would be "completely legitimate" because it was at the request of Yanukovych and in line with Russia's duty to protect people with historic ties to Russia, both cultural and economic.
Putin said he does not believe Yanukovych has a political future.
He said any damage from sanctions imposed by the West against Russia over its actions in Ukraine would be multilateral.
Putin also pointed out what he sees as a double standard by leaders in the United States and other Western countries.
He said the United States acted in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya without a U.N. resolution authorizing that action or by "twisting" U.N. resolutions.
Earlier Tuesday, Russian troops taking part in military exercises near the Ukrainian border were ordered back to their bases Tuesday - but thousands of others remain in control of much of Crimea.
Putin ordered the troops' return after six days of snap exercises at Ukraine's doorstep. The move came the same day that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is due in the Ukrainian capital, Kiev, to discuss aid to the financially strapped country.
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