Russian President Vladimir Putin has admitted that the Russian military have a presence in east Ukraine.
When asked by a Ukrainian reporter about two Russian military intelligence officers captured in Ukraine, Putin admitted for the first time that there was indeed a Russian presence in the country.
“We never said there were not people there who carried out certain tasks including in the military sphere,” he told the reporter, but insisted they were not the same as regular military 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.
In the first part of his press conference, Putin also dealt with questions about the Russian economy, corruption, Syria and the recent crisis in relations with Turkey.
He struck an uncompromising note on Turkey, saying if the shooting down of a Russian jet had been an accident, officials could have called Moscow, but instead they called Nato first.
“Someone in the Turkish leadership tried to lick the Americans in a particular place, I don’t know whether the Americans needed that,” said Putin.
Putin said Russia was committed to its Syria campaign until a political process starts and claimed its position on the country’s future “broadly coincided” with the US.
“We will carry out air strikes and support Syrian army offensives for as long as the Syrian army carries them out.”
“Russia’s (Syria) plan, in principle, broadly coincides with the view put forward by the United States. That is joint work on a constitution, creation of oversight mechanisms for a future democratic election, the election itself, and recognition of its results.”
The main sticking point between Moscow and the west is on the role the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, could play in a future transition. The US and most western countries insist Assad must leave office, but have suggested in recent months he might be able to play a transitional role for some period. Moscow has suggested it is “up to the Syrian people” to decide, but in practice this appears to mean allowing Assad to set the terms of the debate.
Russian warplanes have flown thousands of combat sorties in Syria since Moscow began its air campaign on 30 September.
Putin said in the press conference that Russia was ready to improve ties with the US and work with whoever is elected its next president and talks with the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, earlier this week showed that Washington is ready to “move toward settling the issues that can only be settled through joint efforts.”