Russian President Vladimir Putin has for the first time admitted that Russian forces were present in Crimea before its annexation last month but refuted claims they are currently operating in the eastern part of Ukraine.
“We had to take unavoidable steps so that events did not develop as they are currently developing in southeast Ukraine,” Putin said, according to Reuters news agency. “Of course our troops stood behind Crimea’s self-defense forces.”
Speaking at an annual televised question-and-answer session in Moscow, Putin added that the use of force by the interim government in Ukraine against pro-Russian separatists was a “grave crime.” He added that Kiev should instead be creating a dialogue with the Russian-speaking community in the area.
The Russian leader added that he very much hoped he would not have to use military force in Ukraine and believed that the two countries would eventually find a “mutual understanding.”
The topic of gas supplies was also raised at the session, after the European Commission on Thursday agreed to gas-security talks with Russia, and urged Putin not cut off supplies to Ukraine.
Putin said it would wait for a month for Ukraine to pay off its gas debts but would then switch to a pre-payment scheme. Gas giant Gazprom, in which the Kremlin has a majority stake, claims Ukraine owes it more than $2.2 billion.
“It’s a complicated settlement and might lead to disruption of supply of gas to our European consumers. We can cut it off right now. But we will wait another month,” Putin said.
Snowden quizzes Putin
Fugitive whistleblower and former NSA contractor Edward Snowden also took part in the session.
Snowden asked Putin whether Russia intercepted or analyzed communications between its citizens. Putin replied that the country did not conduct “massive, uncontrolled” surveillance and that Russian laws would not allow that.
“I used to work for intelligence service(s) like you. We will talk the same professional language—our intelligence efforts are regulated by our law,” Putin said to Snowden.
“I hope we won’t do that and we don’t have the money or technical devices that they have in the States.”