President Vladimir Putin has justified Russia's actions in Crimea by dismissing the new Ukrainian Government as illegitimate, saying his troops intervened because "we could see the neo-Nazis rearing their heads".
In a wide-ranging talk, Putin ruled out annexing Ukrainian territory, and said any use of force would only be a last resort.
"Thieves are being replaced by other thieves," he told reporters at a press conference in Moscow, adding that he "does not accept" the ousting of the government in Kiev by the opposition protesters, which was "unconstitutional and illegal."
Putin spoke as tensions on the Crimean peninsula reached boiling point, with Russian soldiers occupying an air base threatening to fire at Ukraine soldiers demanding their jobs back.
Earlier Moscow's UN envoy claimed that Ukraine's now ousted president Viktor Yanukovych had asked the Kremlin to send troops across the border to protect civilians and “establish legitimacy, peace, law and order".
Putin today said "in legal terms there is only one president, and that is Yanukovych."
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But legitimate or not, Yanukovych has "no political future, I told him so," Putin said, but added that if Russia hadn't protected Yanukovych, "he would have been killed".
Yanukovych "never gave this order" to fire on protesters, Putin insisted when asked about deaths of Maidan protesters before the government was overthrown. "Some of the protesters say that snipers may be provocateurs from opposition parties, it's difficult to say who did what."
Russia, Putin stressed, is "not at war with the Ukrainian people, or the Ukrainian army."
The state had only responded to "a request from legitimate president, and in line with our commitment, we are protecting people closely associated with us, historically and culturally, economically, and this meets our national interest.
"It is not our goal to conquer somebody. But we will not remain indifferent while people are destroyed, humiliated and killed."
Putin called the new interim government "complete nonsense," saying it "does not comply with any rules."
Reclining in a chair, and insisting the meeting with reporters should be a "conversation, not an interview", Putin said oligarchs were being installed as governor in the regions of eastern Ukraine, joking that the corruption was "unprecedented even for Russia."
Russia has a humanitarian duty in Crimea, he said repeatedly. "We reserve the right to use all means to defend these people. We know this is an extreme measure, but we believe that Ukraine is not just our neighbour but is our fraternal nation. As for our armed forces and the Ukrainian army, they are brothers-in-arms, friends.
"I am convinced that Ukrainian personnel and Russian personnel will stand stand one one side of the barricades, not opposite sides, there have been no shots fired.
"We have exhausted the possibility of the use of force, there is no necessity for that.
"We only needed to reinforced the defence of our facilities thy have been threatened, nationalists and extremists have threatened then and we acted promptly."
Putin's comments came as Russian forces fired warning shots at protesting Ukrainian soldiers. Today at least three shots were fired, according to reporters, with the warning being given by Russian troops to the Ukrainians that if they came any closer they would be shot in the leg.
The Russian president was particularly dismissive of US threats to boycott the G8 and to suspend trade agreements. "We think our actions are well-founded, and all threats against Russia are counterproductive," Putin said. "We are preparing for the G8 summit and will receive our colleagues and if they don't want to come, that is up to them."
Recalling past Western intervention "in Iraq, in Afghanistan, in Libya", Putin said: "Our partners especially in the US always make it very clear what their geopolitical interests are and they pursue them with much determination. The phrase used is 'whoever not with us against us', and they use this to get countries comply with their will, and they don't comply, they make country regret it.
"This sort of response is expected [by Russia]," Putin said, in response to a question about the Western response. "But our partners in the West should have predicted this too. Why do they try to divide and split the country? The people in East [of Ukraine] realise they have not be consulted.
"They have to be part of the political process, their voice must be heard in shaping the new order in the country. This, however, is none of our business and it's up to Ukrainians to decide, and once the new parliament is elected, that will take place.
"They [the Americans] sit across the pond, and you know, sometimes it feels like they are doing tests on rats in a lab, without understanding the consequences," Putin continued. "
"The same goes for the first wave of protests in the square. Ukrainian politics became a farce, with no order at all. And people get used to this, they they think they can do the same, over and over, and chaos breaks out. We should teach people to respect constitution and basic law."
"The people can determine their future and, for example, Kosovo was allowed to do that. Self-determination is fundamental right . We will never instigate anything, only people who live in that territory have the right to decide the own future."
"The markets were nervous even before the situation in Ukraine escalated and this is mostly the result of the steps take by the Federal Reserve in the US," he said. "This is a general trend, India suffered the most, Russia also suffered from this. This is the fundamental reason, but of course internal affairs always have some effect on the markets. Money likes calm, but I think this is temporary."Suggest a correction