Russian President Vladimir Putin says he hopes he won't have to move troops into Ukraine to protect the local Russian-speaking population, but he reserves the right to do so. He made the comments on a televised call-in show.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Meanwhile, in Moscow, Russian President Vladimir Putin took to the airwaves to defend Russia's position on Ukraine. In a nationally televised call-in program, he blasted the West and said that he doesn't fear Western sanctions. This yearly event is closely watched by analysts who see it as the clearest expression of what Putin wants his own public to think about the key issues of the day.
NPR's Corey Flintoff joins us now from Moscow to talk about what Putin had to say. And, Corey, this call-in show went on for nearly four hours with Putin answering all sorts of questions, even one from former U.S. intelligence contractor, Edward Snowden. Ukraine, though, was the dominant theme, right?
COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Yes, it was, Audie. He dealt with it early on in a question about whether Russian forces were involved in any way in eastern Ukraine. And he dismissed that idea as nonsense. He said categorically that all the pro-Russian militants in the area are local people. And that, by the way, is something that's disputed by NPR's own reporting. Ari Shapiro, who we just heard from, has interviewed people in a couple of the cities who said that at least some of those militants had non-local Russian accents and that they didn't seem to know their way around. Putin also said that the government in Kiev has committed what he called a grave crime by sending troops to deal with protesters in the east.
CORNISH: So what did Putin have to say about the threat of further economic sanctions from the West?
FLINTOFF: In answer to one question, he said that the current sanctions are aimed at attacking people who are close to him personally. He said, of the people on the sanctions list, that they were his friends. He even said that the wife of one of the Russian oligarchs on the sanctions list was unable to pay for a surgery because her bank card had been blocked. But the main thing he had to say about the sanctions was that the West really has very little latitude to impose sanctions on Russia that won't do economic harm in Europe and the United States. He especially pointed to Europe's dependence on Russian gas supplies. To quote him directly, he said, "they badly want to bite us but their opportunities are limited."
CORNISH: So it sounds like Putin struck a pretty strong anti-Western, anti-American tone in this session.
FLINTOFF: Yes. He sounded almost peevish at times about what he perceives as America's arrogance in pursuing its interests and denying Russia the same rights. He said, trust has been lost between the United States and Russia because of U.S. hypocrisy. To quote him again, "The United States can act in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but Russia is not allowed to defend its interests." At the same time, though, Putin said that he's interested in growing relations with the United States and restoring confidence.
FLINTOFF: Snowden's question was actually pre-taped on video and it was introduced by one of the program presenters who hinted that the question might be something outrageous. Snowden asked whether Russia intercepted, stored or analyzed in any way the communications of millions of individuals. And Putin responded that this was sort of a conversation between professionals, because Snowden is an ex-intelligence agent and Putin himself had ties to intelligence. And that, of course, got a laugh from the studio audience because Putin is actually a former lieutenant colonel in the KGB, the Soviet intelligence agency.
But Putin went on to say that Russia monitors communications but only with a judge's order and not on a massive scale. And he said he hope Russia would never allow surveillance like that.
CORNISH: That was NPR's Corey Flintoff in Moscow. Corey, thank you.
FLINTOFF: You're welcome, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.