Russia will never return Crimea to Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said.
"There are no such conditions and there can never be," Putin said in an interview on the Austrian TV channel ORF ahead of his visit to Austria when asked what would need to happen in order for Russia to return Crimea to Ukraine.
After the Austrian host said that Putin had earlier made controversial remarks about Russian military forces' presence in Crimea in the wake of the coup in Kyiv, Putin said, "Russian forces have always been present in Crimea. Our military contingent was there."
"When the unconstitutional armed coup took place in Ukraine, and power changed hands by force, our army was legally deployed in Crimea - under the agreement on our military base there," he said.
"The first thing we did was increase our contingent to guard our Armed Forces, our military facilities, because we immediately saw that they were being threatened. That is where it all began. I told you with confidence that there was no one else there, but our Armed Forces were there legally under an agreement," Putin said.
"But when unconstitutional actions in Ukraine began to unfold, when people in Crimea felt danger, when trains started bringing aggressive nationalists there, when buses and personal vehicles were blocked, people naturally wanted to protect themselves," he said.
That is why Crimean residents sought to exercise the right to self-determination guaranteed both by Ukrainian legislation and the United Nations Charter, Putin said.
"And what did our Armed Forces do, even without expanding the contingent stipulated by the military base agreement? They ensured the independent free elections - an expression of the will of the people living in Crimea," he said.
"So Crimea gained independence through the free will of the Crimeans expressed in an open referendum, not as a result of an invasion by Russian forces," Putin said.