Russian President Vladimir Putin says he hopes he won’t have to send troops into eastern Ukraine, which has been engulfed by violent protests against the new authorities in Kiev.
He also rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest there but recognised for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who took control of Crimea before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers.
He expressed hope for a political and diplomatic solution of the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
Speaking in a televised phone-in show, Mr Putin harshly criticised the West for trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit and said people in eastern Ukraine had risen against the authorities in Kiev, who ignored their rights and legitimate demands.
A wave of protests, which Ukraine and the West said was organised by Russia and involved Russian special forces, has swept eastern Ukraine over the past weeks, with gunmen seizing government offices and police stations in at least 10 cities.
“It’s all nonsense, there are no special units, special forces or instructors in the east of Ukraine,” Mr Putin said.
At the same time, he recognised that soldiers in unmarked uniforms – dubbed “little green men” by some – who appeared in Crimea laying the ground for its annexation by Moscow last month were Russian troops.
Mr Putin, who previously said the troops were local self-defence forces, said the Russian soldiers’ presence was necessary to protect the local population from armed radicals and to ensure the holding of a referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of its residents voted to join Russia.
“Our servicemen stood behind the back of Crimea’s self-defence forces,” Mr Putin said. “They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally. There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honourable way and allow the people to express their opinion.”