Russian president concedes military intelligence officers were operating in the country but insists its not the same as regular Russian troops
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 confessed 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 that conducted 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 experts 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 specific place, I dont 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 countrys 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.
Russias( Syria) plan, in principle, broadly coincides with the position put forward by the United States. That is joint is currently working on a constitution, created in 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 there seems 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 resolving the issues that can only be settled through joint efforts.
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