Denies Russian forces had been deployed in Crimea

East-West tensions over Ukraine eased on Tuesday as President Vladimir Putin said he saw no need “for now” to send troops to the neighbouring state and ordered Russian armed forces to be pulled back from Ukraine’s border.

“As for the use of armed forces, there is no such need for now,” Mr. Putin said in his first public comments on the Ukraine crisis.

Describing use of force as a choice of “last, very last resort,” Mr. Putin warned that he could still go for it if the violence that swept Kiev in recent weeks spilled over to Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern regions.

Looking relaxed and confident Mr. Putin fielded questions on Ukraine from Russian and foreign journalists for about 90 minutes at a news conference at his state residence outside Moscow.

“If people ask us for help —and we have a formal request from [Ukraine’s] legitimate President – we reserve the right to use all means available to protect those citizens,” he said.

Addressing a U.N. Security Council emergency meeting on Monday Russia’s Ambassador Vitaly Churkin read out a letter Ukraine’s ousted President Viktor Yanukovych sent to Mr. Putin asking him to use military force in Ukraine to help restore law and order.

Mr. Putin denied Russian troops had been deployed in Ukraine’s Crimea. He said the masked armed men who had taken full control of the peninsula were “local forces of self-defence.”

The Russian leader confirmed that 150,000 troops who had been holding snap military drills near the Ukrainian border over the past seven days were returning to their bases.

Asked if he felt concerned that a war could break out in Ukraine, he said: “I’m not worried because we have no plans and will not fight a war against the people of Ukraine.”

He said Russia had no intention to annex Crimea. While Mr. Putin’s comments helped defuse tensions, the rift between Russia and the West over Ukraine appeared to be widening.

Act of aggression: Kerry

On a short visit to Kiev on Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry condemned Russia’s “act of aggression” against Ukraine.

Addressing a press conference after meeting Ukraine’s Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov and Acting Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, Mr. Kerry pledged that “the U.S. will stand by the people of Ukraine.”

Mr. Putin denounced the makeover of power in Ukraine as an “unconstitutional coup and armed power grab” and said Ukraine’s interim leaders were “illegitimate,” whereas Mr. Yanukovych was still the lawful President, even if he “has no political future.”

Asked about U.S. threat to penalise Russia, he warned that sanctions would “hurt both sides.”

His economic adviser Sergei Glazyev said on Tuesday that should the U.S. resort to sanctions, Moscow might drop the dollar as a reserve currency and refuse to repay loans to U.S. banks.

As Mr. Kerry offered $1 billion in loan guarantees for Ukraine in addition to 610-million Euro loan from the European Union, Mr. Putin said Gazprom would scrap next month a heavy price discount it extended to Ukraine in December because of piling debts for earlier supplies.

Mr. Kerry vowed to work with allies to “isolate” Russia if it did not “de-escalate” its intervention, but Moscow said it had China on its side.

After a somewhat equivocal expression of support from China’s Foreign Ministry on Monday, Moscow said Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping shared “close” views on Ukraine over telephone on Tuesday.

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