Russian President Vladimir Putin has said he has “a right” to send troops into Ukraine but hopes he will “not have to exercise that right”.
He was speaking live on Russian TV after a clash in Mariupol, eastern Ukraine, in which three pro-Russian protesters were reported killed.
Putin said he hoped the crisis would be resolved through dialogue.
Talks have opened in Geneva between Russia, Ukraine, the EU and US – the first since unrest erupted in Crimea.
In his annual live television phone-in, Putin warned the Ukrainian authorities of “the abyss they’re heading into” and urged dialogue.
He also admitted for the first time that Russian forces had been active in Crimea, which was annexed by Moscow last month. Previously he insisted that the camouflaged, masked gunmen who took over Crimea were a local “self-defence” force.
The West says Russia is aiding the pro-Russian activists now occupying dozens of official buildings in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk region.
Putin dismissed as “rubbish” allegations that Russian special forces were operating there.
Russian-speakers are a majority in Crimea and Donetsk, where ties to Russia are strong. Putin reminded viewers that Tsarist Russia used to call eastern Ukraine “New Russia”.
“The Federation Council [upper house of parliament] granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine. I really hope that I do not have to exercise that right and that we are able to solve all today’s pressing issues via political and diplomatic means,” Putin said.
He said the Kiev government, which had “seized power”, had only spoken to its own appointees in the region, but “not to the people whom locals trust”.