MOSCOW -- Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday rejected claims that Russian special forces are fomenting unrest in eastern Ukraine, but recognized for the first time that the troops in unmarked uniforms who had overtaken Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula before its annexation by Moscow were Russian soldiers.
Putin expressed hope for a political and diplomatic solution of the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War, saying he hopes that he won't have to send Russian troops into eastern Ukraine, which has been engulfed by violent protests against the new authorities in Kiev. At the same time, he poured scorn at the West, accusing it of trying to weaken and isolate Russia and made it starkly clear that he doesn't fear further Western sanctions.
Speaking in a televised call-in show with the nation that lasted nearly four hours, Putin harshly criticized the West for trying to pull Ukraine into its orbit and said that people in eastern Ukraine have risen against the authorities in Kiev, who ignored their rights and legitimate demands.
A wave of protests, which Ukraine and the West said was organized by Russia and involved Russian special forces, have swept eastern Ukraine over the past weeks, with gunmen seizing government offices and police stations in at least 10 cities.
"It's all nonsense, there are no Russian units, special services or instructors in the east of Ukraine," Putin said.
At the same time, he recognized for the first time that soldiers in unmarked uniforms -- dubbed "little green men" -- who swept Ukraine's Black Sea region of Crimea, laying the ground for its annexation by Moscow last month, were Russian troops.
Putin, who previously said the troops were part of local self-defense forces, said the Russian soldiers' presence was necessary to protect the local population from armed radicals and to ensure the holding of a referendum, in which an overwhelming majority of its residents voted for seceding from Ukraine and joining Russia.
But asked on Thursday who the men in unmarked uniforms were, Putin said they were Russian servicemen who "stood behind the back of Crimea's self-defense forces."
"They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally," he said. "There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honorable way and allow the people to express their opinion."
He said part of the motives behind the annexation of Crimea was the need to counter what he said was NATO's intention to make Ukraine a member and sharply limit Russia's presence in the Black Sea region.
Putin insisted that protests in the east of Ukraine only involve locals. He denounced the Ukrainian authorities' decision to use the military to uproot the protests in the east as a "grave crime," adding that he told his Western counterparts urging him to help disarm protesters in the east that the Ukrainian government should first pull the army back.
"They are sending tanks, armored personnel carriers and cannons there!" he said. "Have they gone nuts?"
He expressed hope for the success of Thursday's talks in Geneva that bring 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 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.
Putin repeated his argument that regions in eastern Ukraine historically had been part of the Russian empire called Novorossiya, or "New Russia," before they were handed over to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s.
"God knows why," Putin said.
He also made disparaging comments about Ukrainian nationalism, saying that it's rooted in centuries of humiliation people in western Ukraine suffered while being "second-grade" citizens of other states, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland.
But he also seemed to keep the door open for Russia to recognize Ukraine's presidential election set for May 25, softening his previous demand that it must be postponed until the fall and preceded by a referendum on broader powers for the regions. He added that the primary goal is to ensure that people in the east should be offered clear guarantees of the protection of their rights.
Putin maintained a tough stance on the gas price to Ukraine, which Russia has hiked 80 percent since Yanukovych's ouster and warned that Moscow will start requesting advance payments for gas shipped to Ukraine in one month if it fails to start paying off its massive debt.
Putin also urged Ukraine to reopen trade and transportation routes into Moldova's separatist province of Trans-Dniester, which has run its own affairs without international recognition since a war in 1992. Russia and the Trans-Dniester authorities say that Ukraine has blocked transport routes to the region. Putin has dodged a question about whether Moscow could accept Trans-Dniester's request for the recognition of its independence.
Facing questions about more Western penalties to follow the first rounds of sanctions over the annexation of Crimea, Putin sought to assuage fears they could cripple Russia's vital energy sector. He said that the EU will be unable to do without Russian natural gas supplies, and it would be hard for the U.S. to hurt Russia by encouraging a drop in oil prices.
"They badly want to bite us, but their opportunities are limited," Putin said. "If they try to punish us by putting us into a corner on our knees like naughty children, they will cut the branch they are sitting on."
He admitted that Russia and the U.S. have lost mutual trust, and said that Washington should renounce "double standards and lies" to restore it.
Putin also took a video question from National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden, whom Russia granted asylum last year. Asked by Snowden about Russia's surveillance programs, Putin said that Russian special services also tap on communications in their fight against terrorism, but don't do it on such a massive scale as the U.S.
He said that Russia will further develop ties with China, a natural ally which he said is set to become the world's No. 1 economic power.
While offering scathing criticism of the West, Putin said that Russia hopes that ties will eventually normalize and insisted that Moscow has no intention to draw a new Iron Curtain.
He even tried to infuse a bit of warmth to the chill over Ukraine, picking up a question from a 6-year-old girl who asked if he thinks President Barack Obama would rescue him if he was drowning.
"He's a decent and brave man. He would do it," Putin said.