Vladimir Putin has tersely dismissed claims that Russian forces are present in eastern Ukraine.
The Russian president described the Ukrainian government’s decision to send armed forces into the east of the country as a “grave crime”.
He was speaking during a live phone-in on state television: the second such programme since his re-election in 2012, but which included viewers from recently-annexed Crimea for the first time.
“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.”
Vladimir Putin urged Kyiv to start a dialogue with the Russian-speaking population in eastern Ukraine, and described international talks getting underway in Geneva as “very important”.