MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers.
Putin expressed hope for a political and diplomatic solution of the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, saying he hopes that he won't have to send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, which has been engulfed by violent protests against the new authorities in Kiev. At the same time, he poured scorn at the West, accusing it of trying to weaken and isolate Russia and made it starkly clear that he doesn't fear further Western sanctions.
Speaking in a televised call-in show with the nation that lasted nearly four hours, Putin harshly criticized the West for trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit and said that people in eastern Ukraine have risen against the authorities in Kiev, who ignored their rights and legitimate demands.
A wave of protests, which Ukraine and the West said was organized by Russia and involved Russian special forces, have 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 Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine," Putin said.
At the same time, he recognized for the first time that soldiers in unmarked uniforms — dubbed "little green men" — who swept Ukraine's Black Sea region of Crimea, laying the ground for its annexation by Moscow last month, were Russian troops.
Putin, who previously said the troops were part of local self-defense 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 for seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.