MOSCOW (AP) -- To understand Russian President Vladimir Putin's intentions in Ukraine, it helps to pay close attention to his choice of words and his reading of history. Here is what Putin had to say Thursday in a nationally televised call-in program:
LITTLE GREEN MEN
For the first time, Putin acknowledged that the well-armed soldiers in unmarked uniforms who took over Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula were Russian. He seemed annoyed, however, by the widespread description of them as "little green men" and asked people to avoid the term. He said the troops - who he claimed acted "politely, but resolutely and professionally" - were needed to lay the ground for the referendum that led to Crimea joining Russia. Putin said the annexation of Crimea was necessary to counter what he said was NATO's intention to make Ukraine a member.
While recognizing the "little green men" in Crimea, Putin rejected claims that Russian special forces were operating in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian militias have been seizing government offices and fomenting unrest. But he described the region as Novorossiya, or New Russia, the historical term for a swath of southeastern Ukraine that had been part of the Russian Empire since the 18th century. The territory was handed over to Ukraine by the Bolsheviks in the 1920s. "God only knows why," Putin said.
Putin also made disparaging comments about Ukrainian nationalism, saying it was rooted in centuries of humiliation that people in western Ukraine suffered while being "second-class" citizens in other states, including the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Poland.
In responding to a question from an elderly woman about whether Russia would now seek to take back Alaska, once part of the Russian Empire, Putin hinted at the strategic importance of Crimea's warm-water ports. "Faina Ivanovna, dear, why do we need Alaska?" he said, adding that Alaska is "cold." Putin said he knows that Alaska is now jokingly called Ice Cream, a play on "Krym," the Russian word for Crimea.
Putin tried to infuse a bit of warmth into the chill over Ukraine, picking a question from a 6-year-old girl who asked if he thought President Barack Obama would rescue him if he was drowning. "He's a decent and brave man. He would do it," Putin said.
Putin ended his four-hour televised appearance with a description of what he called a person from the "Russian world" - a term encompassing eastern Ukraine and other parts of the former Soviet Union populated by ethnic Russians. "We are less pragmatic than other people, less calculating," he said. "But then we have a more generous heart. Perhaps this reflects the greatness of our country, its vast size."
Associated Press writer Vladimir Isachenkov contributed to this report.