MOSCOW: Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Friday denied that Moscow had sent any soldiers or security agents to Ukraine’s eastern regions where a separatist movement has demanded independence from Kiev.
“We are accused of having security agents there. They are not there,” Lavrov was quoted by the RIA Novosti news agency as saying.
“We have no troops there by definition,” he added. “We don’t have our soldiers there, and we don’t have our agents there.”
“There are Russian citizens there. But that is not surprising, since on the Maidan there were all kinds of people,” he said, referring to the Independence Square that was the locus of mass protests that brought down the pro-Russian government in Kiev earlier this year.
The new government in Kiev has accused Moscow of stirring unrest in its predominantly Russian-speaking regions to the east, including the towns of Donetsk and Lugansk where pro-Russian protesters have occupied government buildings and are demanding independence.
Separately, Crimean lawmakers adopted a new constitution, taking another step to cement the region’s absorption into Russia despite strong objections from the Muslim Tatar minority.
Pro-Moscow legislators are eager to complete the Black Sea peninsula’s integration into Russia and smooth over financial and legal difficulties that have left businesses in limbo since its break with Ukraine.
All 88 deputies present in the 100-seat legislature broke into applause and stood for the Russian national anthem after approving the constitution in the vote at a session ignored by dissenting lawmakers.
“Step by step we have led Crimeans to realize their dream of returning home to Russia,” Speaker Vladimir Konstantinov told the assembly of the region, which Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred from Russia to Ukraine in 1954.
It was the first assembly vote open to reporters since gunmen seized control of the building on Feb. 27 and legislators elected a pro-Russian regional leader days after protesters in Ukraine’s capital drove President Viktor Yanukovich from power.
In another step both legal and symbolic, a new version of the Russian Constitution, listing Crimea and its port city of Sevastopol as “subjects of the Russian Federation,” was posted on an official state website.
President Vladimir Putin signed legislation annexing Crimea last month following a referendum held after Russia had established military control and dismissed as illegitimate by Ukraine and the West.
Members of the 300,000-strong Muslim Tatar minority have opposed to Russia’s takeover, Crimea protested their lack of inclusion in the drafting of the new constitution.