MOSCOW — A confident President Vladimir Putin on Thursday used his annual televised meeting with the nation to portray a powerful Russia — one that is dismissive of the West, had troops operating in Crimea even as it denied it and regards a large swath of southeastern Ukraine as historically part of its territory.
Somewhat ominously, Putin reminded his audience that Russia’s parliament has given him the authority to send troops into Ukraine. Southeastern Ukraine — including the cities of Luhansk, Kharkiv, Donetsk and Odessa — had been part of the Russian empire, called New Russia, he pointed out. The Soviet Union turned it over to Ukraine. “Why? Let God judge them.” The argument was reminiscent of the one he had made earlier about Crimea, which was given to Ukraine in 1954.
Putin’s remarks raised fears that he was justifying a possible incursion into southeastern Ukraine, where the United States says 40,000 Russian troops are massed just across the border. U.S. and European officials have accused Russia of organizing the armed men and agitators who have been capturing government buildings in southeastern Ukraine and raising Russian flags. Putin denies it. The West says he is lying.
“Nonsense,” Putin said Thursday. “There are no Russian units in eastern Ukraine — no special services, no tactical advisers. All this is being done by the local residents.”
In early March, Putin denied that the well-equipped troops operating on Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and wearing green uniforms without insignia were Russian. Anyone could buy those uniforms, he said. On Thursday, when asked about the soldiers widely known as the green men, Putin acknowledged that they were Russian. Their presence had been necessary, he said, to keep order so that Crimeans could decide their future in a referendum.
“We didn’t want any tanks, any nationalist combat units or people with extreme views armed with automatic weapons,” he said. “Of course, Russian servicemen backed the Crimean self-defense forces.”
The hastily arranged March 16 referendum resulted in 96 percent counted as voting for joining Russia. “In this situation,” he said, “we couldn’t have done otherwise.”
For just shy of four hours Thursday, Putin answered questions from a studio audience, from a video-connected crowd standing in the heart of the Crimean city of Sevastopol and from people calling in and texting from around the nation. Of 2 million calls and 400,000 texts, he answered around 70 questions. Last year, he spoke for four hours and 47 minutes.
Even Edward Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor who revealed a wide-scale U.S. surveillance program and has taken refuge from prosecution in Russia, came out of the shadows to ask a video question: Does Russia spy on its citizens the way the United States did?
No, Putin said. “Thank God, our special services are strictly controlled by the state and society, and their activity is regulated by law.”
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow tweeted in contradiction: “Snowden would probably be interested to know that Russian laws allow the control, storage and study of all data in the communication networks of the Russian Federation.”
Putin’s program was broadcast live on three main television channels and three radio stations. From across the nation, people added their voices to a chorus of “thank-you-Mr.-Putins,” expressing their gratitude for his acquisition of Crimea and his standing up to the West. Journalists and artists lauded him. “There is no legitimate power in Ukraine today,” lamented Karen Shakhnazarov, a filmmaker, who said that as a 20-year-old, his father had fought in the Soviet Army to free Crimea in World War II.
Andrei Norkin, a journalist for Kommersant Radio, said he was worried about the nation’s level of patriotism and urged Putin to support legislation that would set up military academies where schoolchildren could study under inspiring conditions.
“They learn respect for women and older people,” he said. “At cadet schools, they are trained to become real men.”
A few critics were heard, giving Putin the opportunity to describe how misguided they were.
“Laws are being developed that will make culture just a servant of ideology,” said Irina Prokhorova, a literary critic, head of the Civic Platform party and sister of Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. People are being persecuted if they object to the annexation of Crimea, she said, calling it a “sad and forced decision.”
This is not 1937, Putin said, when people were being sent to labor camps.
“Some members of the Russian intelligentsia are unaccustomed to the fact that they might meet resistance or have someone else express a different position and disagree with their position,” Putin said. When contradicted, he said, they get emotional.
He said he had heard that regarding Crimea, some people “want their country to lose and think that this is a good thing. Here, too, there is a continuity. As is known, during the First World War, the Bolsheviks also wanted the Russian government and Russia in general to lose, and the situation quickly got out of hand, which led to the revolution.
“There is some sort of historical continuity here, not the best, though. However, I agree that in any case, we should not slip into some extreme forms of dealing with each other’s views or cast aspersions on people for their opinions. I will do my best to prevent this from happening.”
He dismissed U.S. complaints about Russian behavior as a double standard. “Why isn’t Russia allowed to defend its own interests?” he asked. And he criticized the sanctions the United States has imposed on Russia because of its annexation of Crimea as counterproductive.
“If you try to punish someone like mischievous kids and put them in a corner kneeling on frozen peas so it hurts them, then in the end, you will cut off the branch on which you are sitting,” he said, mixing his metaphors.
Many of his friends — wealthy men — were targeted by the sanctions. They had nothing to do with Crimea, he said.
“I should tell you,” he said, “that I don’t feel ashamed of my friends.”
Would he remarry, someone asked, referring to Putin’s recent divorce.
“First, I have to help my former wife get married, then think about myself.”
His comments were once again met by applause.