* Putin vows to defend compatriots in Ukraine
* Says Ukraine suffered armed seizure of power
* Russia will act against "lawlessness"
By Alexei Anishchuk
NOVO-OGARYOVO, Russia, March 4 President
Vladimir Putin on Tuesday defended Russia's right to send troops
into Ukraine to protect compatriots living in "terror", but said
he would only use force as a last resort.
Breaking his silence since the removal of Russian-backed
President Viktor Yanukovich from power, the former KGB spy
defended a strategy that has drawn charges from the West that
events in Ukraine have exposed his Cold War-style thinking.
Looking relaxed, he tried to turn the tables on the West,
wondering out loud what would result from Washington's latest
experiment in democracy with "lab rats" in Ukraine.
"There can be only one assessment of what happened in Kiev,
in Ukraine in general. This was an unconstitutional coup and the
armed seizure of power. No one argues with this. Who can argue
with it?" Putin asked a small group of reporters at a state
residence near Moscow.
"This is the last resort. We believe, have believed and will
believe, that Ukraine is not only our closest neighbour but a
Fielding questions for more than a hour, the 61-year-old
made his case for Russia's position on Ukraine, doing little to
bridge the gulf in the understanding between the West and Moscow
of what happened in Ukraine over the last week.
He denied that Russian troops had seized Ukraine's southern
Crimea region, where armed men, with no insignia but bearing all
the marks of their Russian origins, have taken control of all
official buildings and some army bases.
Among the armed groups, however, are many servicemen from
the Russian Black Sea Fleet which has a base in Crimea.
Putin also said Russia would not encourage separatist moves
in Ukraine, where many people are Russian speakers and have
closer ties to Russia than to the leaders in Kiev seeking
stronger relations with the European Union.
Crimea's prime minister has said he will hold a referendum
on the region's status later this month and that he could bring
it forward from March 30.
But Putin said that if "lawlessness" spreads to the
country's industrial east, Russia would be within its rights to
act because it had a signed request to do so from Yanukovich,
who he said was the legitimate president of Ukraine.
"Even if I take a decision to use armed force, it will be
legitimate, fully corresponding to the norms of international
law," he said. "And, in this case, it would also correspond to
our interest in protecting the people who are closely tied to us
historically, culturally, economically."
Pointing the finger of blame at the West for stirring
passions in Ukraine, he said the overthrow of Yanukovich was
orchestrated by "western instructors".
While it was clear many in Ukraine wanted change to rid the
country of the corruption and nepotism associated with
Yanukovich's rule, he said, it was not clear they wanted a new
government that would not offer an equal say to all Ukrainians.
"And this is not the first time our Western partners are
doing this in Ukraine. Sometimes I get the impression that
across the pond, somewhere in America, staff at some laboratory
are sitting there conducting experiments, like on rats, without
understanding the consequences of what they are doing," he said.
He shrugged off threats from U.S. and EU officials that
Russia could face sanctions over Ukraine, suggesting they had
more to fear from breaking with Russia that Moscow did from such
The EU is dependent on gas supplies from Russia and the
United States may need Russian support in efforts to end the war
in Syria and curb Iran's nuclear programme.
"We consider our approach well-founded and any threats
against Russia counterproductive and harmful," he said, adding
that if western countries did not want to attend a meeting of
the Group of Eight most industrialised countries in Russia in
June, "they don't need to".
But he said Moscow would cooperate with them to find a
solution for Ukraine which he argued should be based on an
EU-brokered Feb. 21 agreement that Yanukovich signed before
fleeing Kiev. The ousted leader is now in Russia.
"They have supported an anti-constitutional coup and an
armed seizure of power. They have declared these people
legitimate and are trying to support them," he said.
"Even in this case, we are patient and ready to cooperate
even, we do not want to break ties."