MOSCOW (AP) — Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine as “nonsense,” but expressed hope for success of four-way talks on settling the crisis.
Speaking in a televised call-in show with the nation, Putin 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 special units, special forces or instructors there,” Putin said.
At the same time, he recognized for the first time that soldiers in unmarked uniforms who have 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 local self-defense forces, said the Russian soldiers presence was necessary to protect the local population and ensure holding a referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of its residents voted for seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
Putin insisted that protests in the east of Ukraine only involve locals. He said that he told his Western counterparts that only local residents are involved in the protests in the east, and “they have nowhere else to go, they are masters of their land.”
Putin denounced the Ukrainian authorities’ decision to use the military to uproot the protests in the east as a “grave crime.”
He voiced hope for the success of Thursday’s talks in Geneva that brought together the United States, the European Union, Russia and Ukraine for the first time since the Ukrainian crisis erupted.
“I think the start of today’s talks is very important, as it’s very important now to think together about how to overcome this situation and offer a real dialogue to the people,” Putin said.
Russia has demanded that the new government in Kiev, which replaced the ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych who fled to Russia following months of protests over his decision to spike a pact with the EU in favor of closer ties with Russia, move to transform the country into a loose federation. Ukraine has rejected the demand, but promised to give the regions more powers.