Vladimir Putin has for the first time admitted the presence of Russian military specialists in east Ukraine.
Russia has repeatedly denied a military presence in the conflict, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But the Russian president conceded there were military intelligence officers operating in the country in a marathon press conference on Thursday.
Asked by a Ukrainian reporter an hour into the briefing about two Russian military intelligence officers captured by Kiev and currently on trial in Ukraine, Putin said: “We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere.” He insisted this was not the same as regular Russian troops.
There was no opportunity for a follow-up question to examine how many military specialists Putin believes were in Ukraine and what exact tasks they were carrying out. At key moments in the conflict in east Ukraine there has been much evidence of regular Russian army involvement.
Putin also initially denied the “little green men” present during the annexation of Crimea were Russian soldiers but afterwards admitted they were.
Putin said Russia was ready to persuade separatists in eastern Ukraine that a compromise was needed in order to achieve a political settlement of the conflict there.
He also said he expected trade relations with Ukraine to worsen, but that Moscow would not impose any sanctions on Kiev related to its trade deal with the European Union.
The conflict there erupted after Russia annexed Crimea, sent special forces to seize government buildings in the east and established a hybrid army of so-called ‘voluteers” and regular armed forces to seize and hold onto eastern territories of the country.