Russian Troops Near Ukraine Ordered Back To Their Bases

Vladimir Putin orders tens of thousands of troops in military exercises near Ukraine to pull back. Thousands of Russian servicemen control border crossings and block military bases inside Crimea.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm David Greene.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke today for the first time since Russian troops occupied Ukraine's Crimea region last week. Putin would not rule out further military action in Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through translator) Regarding using force, at the moment, there is no need for that, but the possibility - but there is a possibility.

WERTHEIMER: Despite those words, there are signs that tensions are easing. Russian troops conducting exercises near the Ukrainian border went back to their bases. A reported deadline for Ukrainian troops in Crimea to surrender also passed without incident. NPR's Peter Kenyon is in the capitol, Simferopol. Peter, how are people there reacting to the pullback of Russian troops from the border?

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Well, Linda, most people here, as you know, are generally pro-Russian, although there are varying degrees of support for the actual military incursion. In general, people say fine, if they're just defending us, let's just not make it permanent. So this pullback from the other side of the border, as the military exercise conclude, is generally taken as a good sign. Given the geography here, it's not really possible to see if those troops have begun to withdraw yet.

As for here in Crimea itself, if anything, there are more Russian troops here now. They took over a ferry crossing between Russia and Crimea, near the town of Kerch. There's more military vehicles in evidence. The only shots fired, though, are a few reported warning shots into the air. That happened at a base in Sevastopol, when unarmed Ukrainian soldiers approached Russian troops guarding the base and asked for their jobs back. There was this widely reported 5 AM deadline for Ukrainian forces to give up or face a storm of an attack - so it was reported. That passed without incident. Nothing happened. And in Moscow, officials say they don't know where that came from. At the moment, it seems both sides are under orders to avoid clashes, if at all possible.

WERTHEIMER: Now, government there in Crimea has been shaken up pretty dramatically since this whole thing began. You've been looking at this new leadership. What are you seeing?

KENYON: Well, this is a pretty amazing story, actually. Until last week, the man now in charge, Sergei Aksenov, was a fringe politician, heading a separatist party called Russian Unity. That party had all of 3 percent support among voters, three seats in a 100-member parliament. Aksenov is also known in criminal circles by the nickname Goblin. And Crimeans say if there were an actual vote for prime minister, he'd likely come in last. But after armed men took over parliament a few days back, he emerged as the prime minister, now declares himself commander-in-chief, and he continues to push for Crimea to rejoin Russia.

There's really no perfect U.S. analogy, but imagine if Lyndon LaRouche was appointed leader of Texas, and suddenly announced he'd invited the Mexican army in to restore order. I mean, to many Crimeans here, this is just an amazing story. Now, this isn't to say that what happened in Kiev was by the book. There are pretty clear constitutional and procedural issues there with what happened after Victor Yanukovich fled the capital. So that's another reason why this is going to be very messy to resolve.

WERTHEIMER: Are there any signs that that pro-Russian sentiment is affected by the new government - pro, con?

KENYON: Well, yes. People here say the longer Aksenov stays in power, the more he's likely to be accepted, although, in general, most Crimeans want to stay independent from Russia, as well as Kiev. And that's reflected in the lack of support for Aksenov's party.

It's also not clear Russia wants the headaches that would come from re-annexing Crimea, and these days, that would set off diplomatic alarm bells all across Europe and the West.

WERTHEIMER: Speaking of diplomatic alarms, Secretary of State John Kerry is coming to Kiev today, a show of support, obviously, for the new government. Is there any sign that the threat of sanctions against Russia is having an effect?

KENYON: Not so far, largely because it seems Europe is pretty reluctant to go down that road. The latest report suggests that while the U.S. is preparing some relatively significant sanctions, the E.U. and Britain want to limit themselves to more minor and less costly punitive measures. The mindset of people here is that all of this is leading to some kind of multilateral negotiation, that Vladimir Putin is creating facts on the ground to strengthening his position. What he might be bargaining for, of course, remains to be seen.

WERTHEIMER: Peter Kenyon, reporting from Simferopol, in Crimea. Peter, thank you.

KENYON: You're welcome, Linda.

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