Putin Claims Russia ‘Forced to Defend’ Ukraine Separatists

Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin takes part in celebrations for Navy Day in Baltiysk, Kaliningrad region, Russia, July 26, 2015. Putin made a surprising statement on Russian presence in eastern Ukraine. RIA Novosti/Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced that his government was “forced to defend the Russian speakers” of eastern Ukraine, despite previously denying that Moscow plays any formal role in the conflict in the Donbas regions.

Putin spoke at a business forum in Moscow, answering questions about the economic situation in Russia, when the issue of the Ukraine conflict was raised. Separatists in eastern Ukraine’s Donbas regions have been fighting the government in Kiev for over two years, since a wave of pro-EU protests in the capital toppled the pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych.

Kiev and its western partners have repeatedly accused of Russian backing the fighters with reinforcements and arms, but Russia has persistently denied the claim, saying that at most some of its soldiers may have volunteered to fight in Donbas for personal reasons.

However, Putin painted a different picture when asked about Ukraine and Russia’s relationship with the U.S. on Wednesday, according to the Kremlin transcript.

“It was not we who led to the government coup in Ukraine,” Putin said, before accusing the U.S. of funding and orchestrating the Kiev protests.

“Then when we were forced, and I want to underline this, forced to defend the Russian speaking population of Donbas, forced to respond to the struggle of the people living in Crimea to return to the Russian federation, [the U.S.] begins a wave of anti-Russian policies and introduces sanctions.”

Putin had denied sending troops into Crimea, before annexing it in 2014, and issued similar denials regarding Donbas. However, he has issued statements seemingly admitting to armed Russian presence in both regions since.