Putin lays claim to swaths of southeastern Ukraine

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MOSCOW -- Even as the world's top diplomats were gingerly drafting a tentative accord to "de-escalate tensions" in Ukraine, President Vladimir Putin was on national television, declaring Russia's historical claims over Ukrainian territory, reiterating a threat to use military force and generally sounding a defiant, even mocking, tone toward the United States.

Mr. Putin, appearing confident during a four-hour question-and-answer show, referred repeatedly to southeast Ukraine as "New Russia" -- a historical term for the area north of the Black Sea that the Russian Empire conquered in the 1700s. Only "God knows," he said, why the region became part of Ukraine in the 1920s, signaling that he would gladly correct that error.

Dropping previous pretenses, he calmly acknowledged for the first time that Russian troops had been deployed to occupy and annex Crimea. And in perhaps the day's most astonishing moment, he took evident delight in fielding a prerecorded question from fugitive American Edward J. Snowden, wanted on espionage charges for leaking documents on surveillance programs.

If Mr. Putin's show of bravado seemed out of sync with the diplomatic niceties in Geneva, it laid plain his determination to sustain Russian influence over Ukraine and his utter refusal to be cowed by the West.

While Russia's willingness to go along with the accord most likely forestalled an immediate new round of economic sanctions by the West, Mr. Putin's TV remarks made clear that his view of an independent Ukraine as a historical accident had not changed, nor had existing sanctions deterred his plan to reassert Russian power by challenging U.S. dominance in global affairs.

"At one time we were promised that, after Germany's unification, NATO wouldn't spread eastward," Mr. Putin said. "Our decision on Crimea was partially prompted by this. Needless to say, first and foremost, we wanted to support the residents of Crimea. But we also followed certain logic: If we don't do anything, Ukraine will be drawn into NATO sometime in the future. We'll be told, 'This doesn't concern you' and NATO ships will dock in Sevastopol, the city of Russia's naval glory."

Mr. Putin pointedly asserted that he had authority to invade Ukraine, but added that he hoped that 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 Parliament's upper house.

In a bold poke at the White House, the Kremlin arranged for Mr. Snowden, a former NSA contractor sought by the United States on espionage charges, to appear on camera and ask Mr. Putin about Russia's surveillance practices. Told there was a question from Mr. Snowden, he responded slyly, saying, "Well, how could we do without this?"

In his recorded appearance, Mr. Snowden said he had seen "little discussion of Russia's own involvement in the policies of mass surveillance." He continued, "So I'd like to ask you, does Russia intercept, store or analyze in any way the communications of millions of individuals?"

Mr. Putin, once an agent and director of the KGB intelligence service, played up their common spycraft experience. "Mr. Snowden, you are a former agent," he 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," Mr. Putin said. "You have to get a court's permission first." He noted that terrorists used electronic communications, and that Russia must respond to that threat. "Of course we do this," he said. "But we don't use this on such a massive scale, and I hope that we won't. But what is most important is that the special services, thank God, are under a strict control of the government and the society, and their activities are regulated by law."

Mr. Putin's use of the historical term "Novorossiya," or "New Russia," to refer to southeastern Ukraine, which he had not emphasized previously, suggested he was replicating Russia's assertions of historical ties to the Crimean Peninsula before its occupation and annexation. Novorossiya generally refers to a broad area, stretching from what is now the Moldova border in the west to the Russian border in the east, including Donetsk, the port city of Odessa to the south and the industrial center of Dnepropetrovsk to the north.

"It's New Russia. Kharkiv, Lugansk, Donetsk, Odessa were not part of Ukraine in czarist times; they were transferred in 1920," he said. "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."

At another point, he said Russia simply could not allow NATO into Ukraine.


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