Putin: ‘We Never Said’ Russian Soldiers Were Not in Ukraine

Reuters/Alexei Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/Kremlin

After 20 months of fierce denials, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that Russian troops have been deployed to eastern Ukraine.

“We never said there were no people there who were carrying out certain tasks including in the military sphere,” he claimed. “But that does not mean there are Russian (regular) troops there, feel the difference.”

Here is the full exchange:

In January, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov denied Ukraine’s accusations that Russian military operations were underway in its sovereign territory. “I say every time: if you allege this so confidently, present the facts. But nobody can present the facts, or doesn’t want to,” he whined. “So before demanding from us that we stop doing something, please present proof that we have done it.”

Seven months earlier, Lavrov admitted his country is helping the pro-Russian rebels in east Ukraine. He claimed it was only humanitarian aid, but the rebels posted pictures of military equipment.

In March 2014, witnesses reported seeing Russian troops unloading more tanks in eastern Crimea a week before Moscow annexed the peninsula from Ukraine. Ukraine held a presidential election in May, but the separatists in the east refused to allow people to participate. Journalists on the scene posted pictures of a Russian battalion entering Donetsk. One of the fighters told a witness the battalion arrived from Chechnya.

Courtney Weaver at the Financial Times was able to interview a few of the fighters, and they confirmed the group was from Chechnya. The leader of this group, Zelimkhan, said that “Russia can’t openly attack Ukraine,” and “[E]verything is underground.”

“Our president [Chechnya’s Ramzan Kadyrov] gave the order. They called us and we came,” said Zelimkhan.

Only a year later, the West accepted evidence Russia was present in the region. At the time, Secretary of State John Kerry confessed that Russian propaganda worked on him.

“The question asked earlier about … how they present things and the lies about their presence in Ukraine and the training, I mean, you know, it’s stunning but it has an impact in places where it isn’t countered,” he said. “Propaganda works.”

The EU also took a year to acknowledge the Russian soldiers. In retaliation, the body passed more sanctions against 19 people and nine organizations.