Russian president Vladimir Putin has defended the pro-Russian rebels in eastern Ukraine, calling for direct talks between them and the Kyiv government to help restore peace.
He said Ukraine had accepted the rebel leaders’ signatures on the 2015 Minsk ceasefire deal, as such recognising them.
The separatists launched a Russian-backed insurgency in April 2014, seizing most of the Donbas region.
Ukraine denounced the rebels’ claim to independence as an illegal revolt.
Mr Putin was speaking at his annual wide-ranging, marathon press conference, broadcast live on all major TV channels.
Revisions to the Minsk ceasefire deal
Putin ruled out any revisions to the Minsk ceasefire deal, saying it was the only basis for settling the Donbas conflict.
He also pledged to continue with the “Normandy format” talks which aim to resolve the conflict in Donbas, commenting on his summit in Paris on December 9 with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Mr Putin said Mr Zelensky’s predecessor, Petro Poroshenko, “insisted that the leaders of the two unrecognised republics sign the Minsk accords”.
“We persuaded them to sign. So, Ukraine itself acknowledged that those authorities exist.”
A journalist from Ukraine had asked him when he would disband the forces of breakaway Donetsk and Luhansk, the two Donbas regions which claim to be independent “republics”.
Mr Putin again denied that there were any Russian regular troops there helping the rebels.
“There are no foreign troops there – they are local forces, from the local population,” he said.
Ukrainian and Western military experts say there is clear evidence of regular Russian units helping the rebels, who have modern Russian tanks and artillery.
Mr Putin suggested that the Soviet Union’s revolutionary founder, Vladimir Lenin, had made a mistake by granting territory to various nationalities including the Ukrainians as part of a new “confederation”.
“Territories were divided up incorrectly, and this is still being felt. Stalin was against such a system, but finally he accepted it,” Mr Putin said. “Historically Russian land” was given to Ukraine, he said, “based on a strange argument to increase the proletariat’s area”.
He also said there was no need to move Lenin’s embalmed body from the Lenin Mausoleum on Red Square, in central Moscow. He said the place remained very meaningful for many older Russians.