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 Kyiv. 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, 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 Kyiv, 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-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 for seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
But asked on Thursday who the men in unmarked uniforms were, Putin said they were Russian servicemen who "stood behind the back of Crimea's self-defence forces."
"They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally," he said. "There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honourable way and allow the people to express their opinion.
"While offering scathing criticism of the West, Putin said that Russia hopes that ties will eventually normalize and insisted that Moscow has no intention to draw a new Iron Curtain.
He even tried to infuse a bit of warmth to the chill over Ukraine, picking up a question from a six-year old girl who asked if he thinks President Barack Obama will come to rescue him if he was drowning.
"He's a decent and brave man, he would do it," Putin said.