Ukraine Dominates Putin's Yearly Call-In TV Show
President Putin was asked whether Russia planned to invade Ukraine. Putin said he hoped he didn't have to, but reserved the right to do so if he felt he needed to protect Russian interests there.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
As talks over the future of Ukraine were going on yesterday in Geneva, President Vladimir Putin was talking to the Russian people in his yearly television call-in show. It was over before an agreement was reached in Geneva between Ukraine and Russia, but Putin's comments gave us a sense of how hard it might be to get Russia to keep its part of the deal.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Putin's yearly call-in show is closely watched by analysts as an indicator of what the Russia leader wants to communicate to his domestic base about current events.
PRIME MINISTER VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Foreign language spoken)
FLINTOFF: This year's call-in lasted nearly four hours, and much of it was focused on the crisis in Ukraine. Early on, Putin answered a question about the growing conflict in the eastern part of that country, where pro-Russian militants have seized government buildings in about 10 towns. He denied a key claim by the Ukrainian government and its Western allies that Russia is helping to foment the uprising by sending military personnel and advisors.
He's heard here in translation.
PUTIN: (Through translator) This is nonsense. There are no Russian units in the east of Ukraine - no special services, no instructors. Those are all local residents. They are the masters of that land, and you need to be talking with them.
FLINTOFF: That would seem to suggest that Russia takes no responsibility for the armed groups in the east, groups that must be disarmed under the terms of the Geneva agreement.
In another comment, Putin acknowledged for the first time that the gunmen in military fatigues without insignia - who appeared at the start of the take-over in Crimea last month - were Russian troops. Similar gunmen, carrying Russian weaponry, have taken part in some of the building seizures in Eastern Ukraine.
Even if Russia is not using its military in the east, analyst Boris Makarenko says that Russian state television is broadcasting in support of the pro-Russian militants:
BORIS MAKARENKO: Russia is involved. Because anyone who had a chance to watch Russian TV - any five minutes of it, or hours of it - in recent weeks, it's not about Russia, it's about Ukraine and it's propaganda of a density I do not remember in Brezhnev's time.
FLINTOFF: Makarenko, who heads the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, is referring to Leonid Brezhnev, the Communist Party head who led the Soviet Union during much of the Cold War.
Putin brought up another key complaint that Russia has against the West: NATO plans to build a missile-defense system in Europe.
PUTIN: (Through translator) Everyone understands that when you deploy such systems closer to our borders, can intercept the positions of our strategic missiles, ground-based strategic missiles. But they say: Oh, believe us. It's not against you.
FLINTOFF: Putin said that the deployment could trigger an arms race and that Russia's concerns over NATO expansion had influenced his decision to act in Crimea.
Yesterday, US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel dismissed the idea.
SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL: That's ridiculous. It's not an arms race. It's a missile defense system and we have made that very clear.
FLINTOFF: Hagel said that the United States has invited Moscow to participate in the missile defense project.
Putin also took a question from former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden currently under asylum in Russia, because he's wanted by the United States for leaking classified U.S. programs. Snowden appeared on video to ask this question.
EDWARD SNOWDEN: Does Russia intercept, store, or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?
FLINTOFF: Putin denied that Russia conducts mass surveillance. But he got a laugh from the audience by noting that both he and Snowden are former intelligence agents.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MCEVERS: This is NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.