President Vladimir Putin admitted Thursday that Russian troops had been active in supporting separatist forces in Crimea.
Although Russia's Black Sea fleet had been stationed on the peninsula for decades, Putin's comments were the first confirmation that Moscow's troops had backed up the so-called "self-defense forces" in the region.
"The dangers to the Russian-speaking population in Crimea were very real," Putin said in a televised call-in broadcast nationwide. "We had never planned any annexations, we only took a decision to support Crimeans when they asked us to."
The U.S., Europe and the new government in Kiev last month alleged that Russia was involved in stirring up separatist feeling in Crimea, as well as fresh tensions in eastern Ukraine. Crimea was annexed by Moscow after a referendum that was condemned by the West.
During Thursday's phone-in, Putin also praised the work of Ukraine's Berkut riot police, who have been blamed for shooting protesters during the uprising in Kiev in February in which more than 100 people died.
He said people would "recognize the dignity with which they were fighting."
Putin added that Kiev sending troops to eastern Ukraine rather than trying to establish a dialogue was a "grave crime."
- Alexander Smith and Alexandra Mazikina
First published April 17 2014, 2:40 AM