Putin talks tough but cools tensions over Ukraine

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President Vladimir Putin answers journalists’ questions on current situation in Ukraine at the Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residence outside Moscow on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Putin accused the West of encouraging an “unconstitutional coup” in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians there. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

President Vladimir Putin answers journalists’ questions on current situation in Ukraine at the Novo-Ogaryovo presidential residence outside Moscow on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Putin accused the West of encouraging an “unconstitutional coup” in Ukraine, Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Moscow reserves the right to use all means to protect Russians there. (AP Photo/RIA Novosti, Alexei Nikolsky, Presidential Press Service)

Russian soldiers fire warning shots at the Belbek air base, outside Sevastopol, Ukraine, on Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Russian troops, who had taken control over Belbek airbase, fired warning shots in the air as around 300 Ukrainian officers marched towards them to demand their jobs back. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

A man wearing camouflage uniform holds a candle during the funeral of Volodymyr Topiy, 59, who was found burned in the house of trade unions in Kiev’s Independence Square during recent clashes with police, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s border to return to their bases as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Kiev. Tensions remained high in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea with troops loyal to Moscow fired warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

Ukrainian navy corvette Ternopil is anchored at Ukrainian navy base in Sevastopol, Ukraine, early Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Russian troops said to be 16,000 strong tightened their stranglehold on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula Monday, openly defying the U.S. and the European Union and rattling world capitals and stock markets. (AP Photo/Andrew Lubimov)

Ukrainian recruits receive military instructions from a commander at a recruitment center at Kiev’s Independence Square, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 4, 2014. Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine’s border to return to their bases as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Kiev. Tensions remained high in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea with troops loyal to Moscow fired warning shots to ward off protesting Ukrainian soldiers. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

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MOSCOW (AP) — Stepping back from the brink of war, Vladimir Putin talked tough but cooled tensions in the Ukraine crisis in his first comments since its president fled, saying Tuesday that Russia has no intention “to fight the Ukrainian people” but reserved the right to use force.

As the Russian president held court 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 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.

“We are going to do our best (to help you). We are going to try very hard,” Kerry said upon arriving in Kiev. “We hope Russia will respect the election that you are going to have.”

Ukraine’s finance minister, who has said Ukraine needs $35 billion to get through this year and next, was meeting Tuesday with officials from the International Monetary Fund.

World stock markets, which slumped the previous day, clawed back a large chunk of their losses Tuesday on signs that Russia was backpedaling. Gold, the Japanese yen and U.S. treasuries — all seen as safe havens — returned some of their gains. Russia’s RTS index, which fell 12 percent on Monday rose 6.2 percent Tuesday. In the U.S., the Dow Jones industrial average was up 1.2 percent.

“Confidence in equity markets has been restored as the standoff between Ukraine and Russia is no longer on red alert,” said David Madden, market analyst at IG.

Russia took over the strategic peninsula of Crimea on Saturday, placing its troops around its ferry, military bases and border posts. Two Ukrainian warships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, blocked from leaving by Russian ships.

“Those unknown people without insignia who have seized administrative buildings and airports … what we are seeing is a kind of velvet invasion,” said Russian military analyst Alexander Golts.

The territory’s enduring volatility was put in stark relief Tuesday morning: Russian troops, who had taken control of the Belbek air base, fired warning shots into the air as some 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.

As the Ukrainians marched unarmed toward the base, about

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