Vladimir Putin has tersely dismissed claims that Moscow is behind the rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
In his latest live televised phone-in, the Russian president described Kyiv’s decision to send its armed forces into the region as a “grave crime”.
He urged the Ukrainian government to start a dialogue with the Russian-speaking population there.
“What is your response to the West’s accusations that behind the latest events in eastern Ukraine is the hand of Moscow?” a journalist on the programme asked Putin.
“Rubbish,” the Russian president replied. “In the east of Ukraine there are no Russian troops, no special forces, no military instructors. There is only the local population. The proof is that these people do not hide their faces. That’s what I said to my Western partners: they cannot go anywhere, it’s their land, you must talk to them.”
Russia had a right to send troops into Ukraine, Putin said, but he hoped he would not have to.
For the first time, the president admitted that Russian forces had been active in Crimea.
Unidentified armed men were seen in the peninsula before the referendum on its future.
Putin said people needed protection, to be able to vote freely with no pressure from nationalists or extremists.
“That’s why our servicemen stood behind Crimea’s self-defence forces,” Putin said. “They acted in a very correct way, resolutely and professionally.”
For the first time, the phone-in programme with the president was open to people from Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow after the referendum.
Hundreds watched the broadcast on a large screen on the seafront in Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.