Putin sounds conciliatory note on visit to annexed Ukraine region Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a meeting with deputies of the Russian Parliament and other politicians and officials at Sanatorium Mriya near Yalta, Crimea on Thursday, Aug 14, 2014. President Vladimir Putin said on Th
Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers a speech during a meeting with deputies of the Russian Parliament and other politicians and officials at Sanatorium Mriya near Yalta, Crimea on Thursday, Aug 14, 2014. President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday that Russia would stand up for itself but not at the cost of confrontation with the outside world, a conciliatory note after months of tough rhetoric over the crisis in Ukraine. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

YALTA, Crimea (REUTERS) - President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday Russsia would stand up for itself but not at the cost of confrontation with the outside world, a conciliatory note after months of tough rhetoric over the crisis in Ukraine.

Mr Putin was speaking to Russian ministers and members of parliament in Crimea, the Ukrainian region annexed by Russian this year - a stage that led many people to anticipate a major announcement about Ukraine.

But the tone of Mr Putin's comments was low-key and he avoided the kind of barbs that he has previously directed at Western countries during the crisis, which has dragged East-West relations to their lowest ebb since the Cold War.

"We must calmly, with dignity and effectively, build up our country, not fence it off from the outside world," Mr Putin said."We need to consolidate and mobilise but not for war or any kind of confrontation ... for hard work in the name of Russia."

He also said Russia would do everything in its power to end the conflict in Ukraine as soon as possible and stop the bloodshed there.

Explaining his thoughts on Thursday about Russia's foreign policy doctrine, he said it should be peace-loving. "All our partners in the world should understand that Russia, like any other large, powerful sovereign state, has various ways and means of ensuring its national interests, and these include armed forces," he said. "But this is not a panacea and we do not intend, like some people, to dash around the world with a razor blade and wave that blade around. But everyone should understand that we also have such things in our arsenal."

Many of Mr Putin's critics in Western capitals say he has made such dovish comments before, but that this has not been matched by actions on the ground.

European countries and the United States allege that Russia is supplying arms to separatists in eastern Ukraine. They have also said a Russian aid convoy headed to Ukraine could be a cover for a military attack.

Moscow has denied those allegations. It says it is interested only in protecting the largely Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine which it portrays as a target of nationalistic Ukrainian military forces.

The standoff over Ukraine is now becoming much more costly for both sides, with the EU and US imposing economic sanctions, and Russia retaliating by banning imports of many food products.

Mr Putin used his visit to Crimea to offer reassurances that Moscow would foot the bill for propping up the economy.

A tourist region, Crimea has seen a sharp fall in bookings from holiday-makers. Local tourism officials estimate 3 million tourists will visit this year, against 6 million annual visitors before Russia's annexation.

Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea, has also struggled with disruptions to water and electricity supplies, which reach Crimea along a narrow strip of land that connects it to Ukraine.

Moscow said in July it would invest more than US$20 billion (S$25 billion) between now and 2020. The government plans to spend about a third of this amount on building a bridge across the 4-km strait that separates Crimea from Russia.

In his speech on Thursday, Mr Putin also said he had signed off on establishing a Russian military task force in Crimea, but said the presence would not be too heavy or costly. "The Defence Ministry prepared ... a separate programme for the creation and development of military forces in Crimea. I approved this programme," Mr Putin said. "It will not be excessive, it will not be expensive."

He added that Crimea was an inseparable part of Russia and that there was no turning back on Moscow's takeover of the peninsula.

He said people should not complain about the amount of cash going on Crimea because it was Russian territory and the money was being spent for the benefit of all Russian people.