President Vladimir Putin has called claims Russia is behind eastern Ukraine's unrest "nonsense." He has accused the government in Kyiv of raising tensions in the region, while expressing hope for crisis talks.
During the beginning of a televised call with the nation on Thursday, Putin said Ukraine's decision to send armed forces to the country's restive east rather than establishing a dialogue was a "grave crime." He also dismissed Western accusations that Russian special forces were present in the region, saying the people there have risen up against a government that has ignored their rights and legitimate demands.
"It's all nonsense, there are no special units, special forces or instructors there," the Russian president said. He added the protests in eastern Ukraine, which have driven separatist sentiment in recent weeks and resulted in gunmen seizing government offices and police stations in at least 10 cities, involve only locals.
Ukraine's new government, which took over following the fall of former president Viktor Yanukovych earlier this year, is dragging the country towards an "abyss," Putin said, slamming the decision to launch a military operation against separatists who have seized buildings.
"This is one more serious crime by the current Kyiv authorities," Putin said.
Crimean forces acknowledged
Putin acknowledged for the first time, however, that soldiers in unmarked uniforms who led the incursion into Crimea that resulted in its eventual annexation by Moscow, were in fact Russian troops. He had previously insisted they were local self-defense forces, but said Thursday they were necessary to protect the local population and hold the local referendum.
"Our goal was to ensure the conditions for a free vote," Putin said. "Behind the local defense forces were our soldiers. They acted correctly, but decisively and professionally."
"We had to protect people from the possible use of weapons" on Ukrainian military bases, he said.
Dialogue, not force
Putin urged that diplomacy was the way to reach a solution to the crisis, saying he "very much hopes" Russia will not have to send its military to eastern Ukraine.
"Only through dialogue, through democratic procedures and not with the use of armed forces, tanks and planes, can order be imposed in the country," he said. "It is very important today to think about how to get out of this situation and offer people a genuine dialogue and not just one for show."
Snowden asks a question
Fomer US intelligence contractor Edward Snowden posed a video question to Putin about the extent of Moscow's surveillance activities. Leaks from the former US intelligence contractor, who is currently on asylum in Russia, provided the basis for news stories over the past year revealing the far-reaching practices of American surveillance.
The president said the kind of "mass eavesdropping" conducted by the US is impossible in Russia because the country's intelligence services are under strict control.
"We have strict legal regulation of the use of special surveillance by special services, including tapping phone conversations, surveillance on the internet and so on," said Putin, who stressed court approval was necessary.
"This is not done on a mass scale and indiscriminately in Russia. And it cannot be done by the law."
He added that "appropriate modern means" were undertaken to monitor "criminals, including terrorists."
dr/hc (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)