Instead, he claimed that the thousands of heavily armed, Russian-speaking soldiers who have taken over Ukrainian government buildings and surround Ukrainian military installations, threatening to attack if troops inside don't surrender, are local "self-defense" forces.
Putin was asked directly if the soldiers are from the Russian military.
"Why don't you take a look at the post-Soviet states. There are many uniforms that are similar. You can go to a store and buy any kind of uniform," he said.
A reporter asked: "But were they Russian soldiers or not?"
Putin: "Those were local self-defense units."
Russia Claims no Control Over "Self-Defense" Forces
|Crimean "self-defense" members guard a military airfield|
near Sevastopol in this photo from the Kyiv Post
published March 4. The men don't appear to be armed
or dressed in the same uniforms as the thousands
of well-equipped soldiers who have suddenly appeared
in Crimea. A truck that the Kyiv Post describes as a
"Russian military vehicle" is visible in the background.
Some have, however, confirmed to reporters and locals that they are Russian soldiers, NPR reported yesterday.
The troops have occasionally been seen to collaborate with ragtag groups of pro-Russian activists who appear more clearly to be civilians (shown in this YouTube video attempting to confront Ukrainian marines in Crimea) -- although it's not clear how many of the latter are Crimean residents as opposed to arrivals from Russia.
(Ukrainian authorities say pro-Moscow provocateurs have been arriving by the busload from Russia, and these stories in Toronto's Globe and Mail and Kyiv Post suggest the claim isn't without merit.)
In contrast, the soldiers themselves appear professionally trained and are equipped with military-grade hardware -- bazookas, armoured personnel carriers, military trucks and assault rifles -- difficult or impossible to find in a store.
Yet, Russian officials insist they have no operational control over the Crimean "self-defense" forces and can't order them back to their bases. "They take no orders from us," Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Wednesday.
Images Emerge of Russian Hardware in Crimea
Nonetheless, photos and video are emerging that provide more evidence the troops are Russian.
This story on the site StopFake.org, created by Ukrainian journalist students to counter Russian government propaganda about the crisis, includes a video showing soldiers breaking into a Ukrainian government building in Crimea.
The soldiers have no insignia, but one has a tag on his back with the name "A.M. Dosanov." StopFake says it has identified him as a Russian special forces soldier from a unit based in Russia's Saratov region.
The tag also says "рядовой," which means "private" in Russian.
Below are images of Russian hardware and military trucks with Russian plates in Crimea taken in recent days.
|Russian tanks -- not likely obtained in a store -- blockading|
a Ukrainian military base in Crimea. Source: CNN, March 2, 2014
|Russian armoured personnel carriers on the road to|
Simferopol, Crimea. Source: The Guardian, Feb. 28.
|This image from a CNN report March 4 shows Russian self-|