Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday dismissed claims that Russian special forces were 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.
At the same time, Putin 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.
Having previously posited that the troops were local self-defense forces, Putin on Thursday said that 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.
Three pro-Russia forces killed in Ukraine clashes
Pro-Russian separatists attacked a base of the Ukrainian national guard in an eastern city overnight and Kiev said three of the militants were killed, bloodshed likely to overshadow crisis talks in Geneva.
Ukrainian, Russian and Western diplomats arrived for the emergency talks in Switzerland, but there was little hope of any progress in resolving a crisis that has seen armed pro-Russian fighters seize whole swathes of Ukraine.
Putin, who overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month by declaring Russia's right to intervene in neighboring countries and annexing Ukraine's Crimea region, has deployed tens of thousands of troops on the frontier.
The new deadly clashes in the port of Mariupol took place even as a modest Ukrainian military operation to recapture territory elsewhere from armed pro-Russian rebels ended in disarray, with troops surrendering rather than open fire.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said an armed group of about 300 separatists attacked the national guard base in Mariupol with guns and petrol bombs. Three separatists were killed in shooting that followed and 13 were wounded, he said. No guardsmen were hurt.
"Given the aggressive nature of the attack on the base, an interior ministry group has been strengthened by Omega special forces. Helicopters have been sent in," he said.
Pro-Russian militants control buildings in about 10 towns in eastern Ukraine after launching their uprising on April 6. Kiev fears that Moscow, which claims the right to use military force to protect its supporters, could see any deaths as a pretext to launch an invasion.
Putin dismisses "Nonsense" claims
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.
"What I have said consistently is that each time Russia takes these kinds of steps that are designed to violate their sovereignty, that there are going to be consequences," U.S. President Barack Obama said on Wednesday in an interview with CBS. Using words unheard since the Cold War, he said the United States had stronger conventional military forces than Russia, and neither side wanted a conflict.
"We don't need a war," he said.
Western countries have repeatedly made clear they are not prepared to fight for Ukraine, but the NATO alliance announced steps on Wednesday to beef up security of member states such as Poland and the Baltic countries, which feel threatened by Russian action nearby.
Upon arriving in Geneva on Wednesday, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Andriy Deshchytsia said there was still time for negotiations to ease tensions with Russia.
"I think that we still have a chance to de-escalate the situation using the diplomatic means," he said. "And we will try hard. We are trying hard - not only Ukraine - but also the United States. However, the time is now, not only to express the concerns, but to look for a more concrete and adequate response to Russia's plans and actions."
Kiev and the West believe Russian agents are directing the insurgency in the east. A U.S. official said Washington was looking for evidence in Geneva that Russia would stop.
"The idea here is that they would stop aiding and abetting and supporting these separatists and that they would pull their troops back from the borders," the official told reporters as Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Geneva. Other U.S. officials in Washington said they did not expect a breakthrough.
The European Commission took a step towards preparing for wider sanctions, handing documents to EU member states on Wednesday explaining the potential impact on their economies of stricter trade and financial measures, diplomats said.
The documents examine energy, finance, trade and other areas. A number of EU countries that rely heavily on Russian gas supplies are nervous about possible retaliation from Moscow and at least one EU diplomat said the measures had to be balanced.
Putin has shown no sign of backing down before his question-and-answer session. He traditionally speaks about matters close to the hearts of ordinary Russians such as dilapidated housing, inefficient local authorities and inflation.
But on the eve of the event, for which Russians had registered more than 1.5 million questions by Tuesday, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Putin would give an extensive assessment of U.S. and EU sanctions.
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