SEVASTOPOL, Ukraine (AP) — Vladimir Putin ordered tens of thousands of Russian troops participating in military exercises near Ukraine's border to return to their base as U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was on his way to Kiev, as tensions in the strategic Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea remain high as troops loyal to Moscow fired warning shots at protesting Ukrainian soldiers.
It was not clear if Putin's move was an attempt to heed some of the West's call to de-escalate the crisis that has put Ukraine's future on the line.
It came Kerry was on his way to Kiev to meet with the new Ukrainian leadership that has accused Moscow of military invasion. The Kremlin, which does not recognize the new Ukrainian leadership, insists it made the move in order to protest millions of Russians living there.
On Tuesday, pro-Russian troops who had taken control of the Belbek air in the Crimea region fired warning shots into the air as around 300 Ukrainian soldiers, who previously manned the airfield, demanded their jobs back.
About a dozen Russian soldiers at base stood guarding the airfield and warned the Ukrainians, who were marching unarmed, not to approach. They fired several warning shots into the air and said they would shoot the Ukrainians if they continued to march toward them.
The shots were the first fired since pro-Russian troops — estimated by Ukrainian authorities to be 16,000 strong, tightened their grip on the Crimea Peninsula over the weekend.
There was no fighting elsewhere in Crimea early on Tuesday. A supposed Russian ultimatum for two Ukrainian warships to surrender or be seized passed without action from either side, as the two Ukrainian ships remained anchored in the Crimean port of Sevastopol. Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Vladimir Anikin said late Monday that no ultimatum had been issued.
Early on Tuesday, Putin's spokesman told Russian news agencies that Putin ordered troops participating in military exercises in western Russia near the Ukraine border to return to their permanent bases. The order was issued almost a week after Russia began massive exercises involving most military units in western Russia, stoking fears that the Kremlin might use the troops to seize territory in pro-Russian areas of eastern Ukraine.