Putin to Obama: Russia ready to protect interests in Ukraine

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin told U.S. President Barack Obama that Moscow reserved the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers in Ukraine if they come under threat, the Kremlin said.

In a statement posted online on Sunday, the Kremlin said Obama had expressed concern about the possibility of Russian military intervention in Ukraine after the upper house of parliament authorized Putin to deploy the military in Ukraine.

“In response to the concern shown by Obama ... Putin drew attention to the provocative, criminal actions by ultra-nationalists, in essence encouraged by the current authorities in Kiev,” the statement said.

It said Putin had underlined that there are “real threats to the life and health” of Russians in Ukraine.

“Vladimir Putin stressed that if violence spread further in the eastern regions of Ukraine and in Crimea, Russia reserves the right to protect its interests and those of Russian speakers living there,” it added.

Protesters opposed to the new authorities in Kiev staged rallies in a number of cities on Saturday in the mostly Russian speaking regions of southern and eastern Ukraine. Crimea is Ukraine’s only region with a majority ethnic Russian population.

The Kremlin said Putin also had telephone conversations with French President Francois Hollande and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.

Putin told Ban Russia would resort to “whatever measures are necessary in compliance with international law” if violence is committed against Russian speakers in Ukraine.

Putin also underlined to Hollande what he said was the real threat facing Russian citizens in Ukraine since Moscow-backed President Viktor Yanukovich was deposed by leaders Russia has poured scorn on.

Reporting By Timothy Heritage, Editing by Peter Graff