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Putin asserts right to use force in Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestured Thursday while speaking during his annual call-in live broadcast in Moscow.

Alexey Nikolsky/RIA Novosti/EPA

Russian President Vladimir Putin gestured Thursday while speaking during his annual call-in live broadcast in Moscow.

MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin of Russia emphasized Thursday that the upper chamber of parliament had authorized him to use military force if necessary in eastern Ukraine, and he stressed Russia’s historical claim to the territory in language not often used before, signaling a new and more aggressive policy.

Putin repeatedly referred to eastern Ukraine as “New Russia” — as the area north of the Black Sea was known after it was conquered by the Russian Empire in the late 1700s. He said only “God knows” why it became part of Ukraine in 1920.

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Speaking in a televised question-and-answer show, Putin also admitted for the first time that Russian armed forces had been deployed in Crimea, the disputed peninsula Russia annexed last month immediately after a large majority of the population voted in a referendum to secede from Ukraine. But he dismissed suggestions that Russian troops were behind the unrest in eastern Ukraine.

Putin’s remarks on eastern Ukraine came as officials from Russia, the United States, Europe and the new government in Kiev were meeting in Geneva in negotiations aimed at resolving the political crisis.

Russia has mobilized troops along the border with Ukraine, and in recent days pro-Russian demonstrators have caused widespread unrest throughout the eastern part of the country, seizing police stations and other government buildings and forming roadblocks. There have been several outbursts of violence, including a firefight at a Ukrainian military base overnight in which at least three pro-Russian militiamen were killed.

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During the question-and-answer show, Putin asserted that he had the authority to invade Ukraine, but that he hoped it would not be necessary.

“I remind you that the Federation Council has given the president the right to use armed forces in Ukraine,” he said, referring to the upper house of parliament. “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that by political and diplomatic means we will be able to solve all of the sharp problems.”

Putin’s use of the historical term “Novorossiya” or “New Russia” to refer to southeastern Ukraine, which he had not emphasized previously, suggested that he was replicating Russia’s assertions of historical ties to Crimea before the occupation and annexation of the peninsula.

Novorossiya generally refers to a broad area, stretching from what is now the border of Moldova in the west to Donetsk in the east, including the port city of Odessa to the south and the industrial center of Dnepropetrovsk to the north.

Putin’s question-and-answer show is an annual event that lasts for four hours and has become a ritual of sorts as he fields questions not only from a studio audience but from across Russia’s vast geographic expanse.

One of the most dramatic moments came not in an exchange with a Russian citizen but with a surprise appearance by the fugitive American, Edward J. Snowden, who leaked a trove of highly classified documents related to electronic surveillance by the National Security Agency.

In a bold poke at the Obama White House, the Kremlin arranged for Snowden, a former NSA contractor wanted on espionage charges, to appear on camera and ask Putin about Russia’s own surveillance practices.

When told that there was a question from Snowden, Putin reacted slyly with a phrase that translates roughly as: “How could we do without this?”

In his appearance, which was prerecorded from an undisclosed place, Snowden said that he had seen “little discussion of Russia’s own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance.” “So I’d like to ask you,” he continued, “does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?”

Putin, a former KGB agent and former head of the Russian intelligence service, played up their common professional experience in spycraft. “Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent,” the president replied. “I used to work for an intelligence service. Let’s speak in a professional language.”

“Our intelligence efforts are strictly regulated by our law,” Putin said. “You have to get a court’s permission first.”

Because terrorists use electronic communications, Putin said, Russia has to respond to that threat. “Of course we do this,” Putin said. “But we don’t use this on such a massive scale and I hope that we won’t.”

On the question of Ukraine, Putin repeated his assertions that Russia feels an obligation to protect ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine who are a large minority in the region.

“We must do everything to help these people to protect their rights and independently determine their own destiny,” he said.

“Can a compromise be found on the Ukrainian question between Russia and America?” Putin asked. “Compromise should only be found in Ukraine.

“The question is to ensure the rights and interests of the Russian southeast. It’s New Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times, they were transferred in 1920. Why? God knows. Then for various reasons these areas were gone, and the people stayed there — we need to encourage them to find a solution.”

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