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Speaking during a marathon question and answer show on live television, Putin reminded viewers that Russia’s upper house of parliament had authorized the use of force in Ukraine.
“I very much hope I will not have to use this right,” he said.
Putin denied Western claims that Russian troops are already operating inside Ukraine and that the unrest there has been orchestrated by the Kremlin. He warned that if the situation continues, Russia will not recognize the results of next month’s Ukrainian presidential election.
Putin slammed the new government in Kiev for sending troops to quell the unrest in the east. He blamed them for failing to engage the Russian-speaking population there to calm concerns that the new pro-Western government was not out to get them.
“They are sending tanks, armored personnel carriers and cannons there. Who are they sending these tanks against? Are they out of their minds?” he said.
After the show, journalists asked Putin what might cause Russia to send troops in to Ukraine. He declined to say, explaining that it might affect the situation on the ground, according to Russia’s Interfax news agency.
For the first time, however, Putin acknowledged that the heavily armed troops with no insignia on their uniforms who suddenly appeared on the streets of Crimea ahead of last month’s referendum to join Russia were Russian troops. Those troops, he said, were necessary to prevent exactly the type of chaos that is taking place in eastern Ukraine now.
Western and Ukrainian authorities say Russia fabricated reports of threats to Russian speakers in the region in Crimea to scare the population into vonting to leave Ukraine. Putin, however, said today that those threats were “real and palpable.”
He insisted Russia’s annexation of Crimea was not planned in advance, but was rather a response to the overwhelming results of the referendum.
“It was highly important for me to see the results of this expression of the people's will,” he said.
He appeared to dismiss former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich, who until he was ousted in February, was a Kremlin ally. But said Yanukovich told him that while he thought about ordering the use of force against the protesters who forced him from office, he could not bring himself to do it.
The wide-ranging call-in show lasted nearly four hours as Putin fielded questions from a studio audience of prominent Russians, questions that had been submitted in advance, and questions from Russians appearing live from select cities. In a change from previous years, most of the questions were about Ukraine and Russia’s standing in the world, though some villagers across this vast country inquired about the rising costs of bread and compensation for natural disasters.
A 6-year-old girl wrote in to ask Putin if he thought President Obama would save him if he were drowning. Putin replied that, while he did not have a close relationship with Obama, he considered him a good man and thought that Obama would save him.
Asked if he had plans to annex Alaska next, Putin asked rhetorically “What would you need Alaska for?” Russia, he said, already has enough cold territory.
Earlier in the show, Putin said the U.S.-Russian relationship lacks trust. He blamed the United States, claiming it employs a double standard by intervening in Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan while criticizing Russia for, in his words, protecting its own interests.
The head of Russia’s new state-owned media company Russia Today, a man dubbed the Kremlin’s new propaganda chief, told Putin he felt suffocated by NATO expansion into eastern Europe and asked where the red line will be drawn.
Putin said there is no need to be afraid, but said that geopolitics could force Russia to act. He insisted NATO’s plans for a missile defense shield in eastern Europe, which the United States says is aimed at defending against Iran, was instead aimed at Russia. He warned the system’s deployment could spark an arms race.
He seemed to confirm suspicions that his takeover of Crimea was due in part to fears that Ukraine could become part of NATO and would limit Russia’s influence in the Black Sea, where it has a substantial naval presence.
“If NATO troops go there and deploy their assault weapons, then it will have a geopolitical significance for us and Russia will be practically forced out from the Black Sea region,” he said.
The Russian leader brushed aside suggestions that Europe might soon wean itself off its dependence on Russian gas, suggesting it would harm their economies and devalue the U.S. dollar. He warned Ukraine that, unless it repays the billions of dollars it owes for past gas deliveries within a month, Russia will begin demanding payment up front and only ship what has been paid for in advance. That may be an enormous challenge for the fledgling government in Kiev, which is struggling to pay its bills and is begging the international community for a bailout.
In a surprise move, NSA leaker Edward Snowden also submitted a question via video, asking Putin whether Russia employed mass surveillance systems similar to ones used by the U.S. National Security Agency.
The ex-KGB agent (who earlier in the show said that job taught him to be “absolutely loyal”) began his response by telling Snowden he was speaking as one spy to another. Putin denied Russia had a mass surveillance program and said any electronic surveillance was used only for law enforcement purposes. Experts on Russian surveillance, however, said Putin was vastly understating the scope of Russia’s surveillance program.
Snowden has been hiding at an undisclosed location in Russia after receiving asylum last year while on the run after leaking classified information about American spying.
Asked when Russia might have a new first lady, the newly divorced Putin responded wryly that he’ll have to help his ex-wife get re-married first.
The marathon call-in show has become a regular feature in the nearly decade and a half since Putin first became president.
Asked if he planned to remain president for life, Putin briskly responded “No” and moved on.