Russian soldiers have not occupied government buildings and surrounded Ukrainian military bases on the Crimean Peninsula, Russian President Vladimir Putin insisted Tuesday during a news conference near Moscow at which he gave an account of recent events that contradicts reports from the ground.
Instead, he told reporters that the heavily armed men are "local self-defense forces."
Anything Russia has done in Crimea has been part of a "humanitarian mission" to protect ethnic Russians there.
Some of his other statements appeared to indicate, however, that Russia had indeed put boots on the ground in Crimea.
"Our actions are often described by the West as not legitimate,” he said, “but look at U.S. operations in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya," he said, according to a BBC translation of his comments. "Our actions are legitimate from the point of view of international law, because Ukraine's legitimate president asked us for help. ... Defending these people is in our interests ... we do not want to 'enslave' anyone."
NPR noted that Putin made his claims about a lack of involvement by Russian forces “even though Russian military helicopters have been seen in the skies over Crimea, Russian trucks have been seen moving the armed men to key locations, and the soldiers in unmarked uniforms speak Russian and in some cases have told reporters and local residents that they are members of the Russian military.”