Over 9,000 people have been killed since the start of the conflict in eastern Ukraine in April 2014
Moscow (AFP) - President Vladimir Putin insisted Thursday that Russia has no regular troops in eastern Ukraine but admitted that some people have been carrying out military tasks there.
Putin's comments during his annual news conference raised eyebrows after months of bluntly denying US and NATO charges that Moscow had any direct presence or role in eastern Ukraine beyond providing political and moral support for pro-Russian rebels there.
"We never said there weren't people (in Ukraine) who work on resolving various issues there, including in the military sphere," Putin said when a Ukrainian journalist brought up the question of two captured Russians currently on trial in Kiev.
"That doesn't mean there are regular Russian troops (there)," Putin said during the three-hour news conference. "Feel the difference."
NATO head Jens Stoltenberg said Putin's remarks confirmed what the US-led military alliance believed all along -- that Russia had a military presence in eastern Ukraine.
"We have stated again and again that Russia is present with military personnel in eastern Ukraine and that is based on our own intelligence sources," Stoltenberg said as he met Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
"There are many different sources telling the same thing -- that Russia has a military presence in eastern Ukraine."
Stoltenberg said Putin's remarks also meant that Moscow clearly had "a special responsibility" in ensuring implementation of the Minsk peace accords aimed at halting the conflict that erupted in April last year.
The truce deals include Ukraine regaining full control of its border with Russia.
Putin last year acknowledged Russian troops were in Crimea before Moscow seized the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, after initially denying it.
Two men, who say they are Russian military officers, have been on trial in Ukraine since September, after being captured in the east of the former Soviet nation and charged with terrorism.
The Russian military denied they were active servicemen.
- 'Resolving the conflict' -
Over the past few months, fighting between Kiev's forces and pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine has largely died down although sporadic clashes still occur.
"We are not interested in exacerbating the conflict. On the contrary," Putin told a Ukrainian journalist who asked whether Russia planned to advance on Ukrainian positions next year.
"We are interested in resolving this conflict as soon as possible."
The UN last week hailed a "sharp de-escalation of hostilities" since the warring sides signed a new truce on September 1 in a conflict that has claimed more than 9,000 lives.
Putin also said Thursday Russia was not planning to impose sanctions against Ukraine after Moscow suspended its free trade agreement with Kiev.
"We are not planning to impose any kind of sanctions against Ukraine," Putin said.
"Ukraine cannot be placed in conditions worse than those of our external partners, but of course, Ukraine will have no benefits or trade preferences with Russia from January 1, 2016."
This week, Putin signed a decree suspending Russia's free-trade deal with Ukraine as of January 1, the same day Kiev is set to enter a similar accord with the European Union.
Ukrainian goods destined for the Russian market will be subjected to customs tariffs of an average of seven percent, Putin said.
Moscow has expressed concern that Ukraine's agreement with Brussels may flood its market with European goods and months of three-way talks with the EU to smooth the transition have yielded no results.