• Russian operatives ``dealing with certain issues,'' Putin says
  • NATO's Stoltenberg says comment shows Russian role in conflict

President Vladimir Putin on Thursday went further than ever before in discussing Russia’s role in Ukraine’s separatist insurgency, with a comment on the deployment of operatives that NATO said was an acknowledgment of the Kremlin’s military involvement in the conflict.

“We never said that there aren’t people there dealing with certain issues, including in the realm of the military,” Putin said during his annual news conference in Moscow. “But that doesn’t mean that there are regular Russian troops there. Feel the difference.”

Since the start of hostilities in Ukraine last year, Russia has been at odds with the U.S. and its allies who’ve said that it’s aided separatists in the country’s easternmost regions with soldiers and weapons, claims that Putin has consistently denied. The Kremlin instead accused the government in Kiev of waging war on its own citizens in the conflict that has killed thousands of people. Putin’s comment on Thursday appeared to depart from the answer to a similar question in April, when he quipped that Russia “definitely” had no troops in the neighboring country.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the change in language amounts to a confirmation of the presence of Russian troops in eastern Ukraine.

“They have conducted military activities and that is what we normally call soldiers,” Stoltenberg said in Brussels on Thursday. “This just once again underlines the special responsibility of Russia when it comes to the full implementations of the Minsk agreements.”

A fragile cease-fire -- negotiated in February by Putin, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande -- has largely held since September. Stoltenberg warned that there’s still a “real risk” of the violence resuming after a recent increase in truce violations.

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