'Russian troops in Ukraine? Got any proof?'
Vladimir Putin faced a barrage of tricky questions from French media ahead of his meeting with world leaders at the 70th anniversary of the Normandy landings. Here are his best replies on key issues: Ukraine, Crimea and relations with the US.
On Ukraine, its sovereignty and Russian troops:
The ongoing crisis in Ukraine has been occupying the center of international attention since the end of last year. While the coup-appointed government in Kiev is carrying out a military crackdown on the southeast of the country, the US said that Russian troops are allegedly involved in the crisis and they have proof of that.
"What about proof? Why don't they show it?" Putin told French media.
"The entire world remembers the US Secretary of State demonstrating the evidence of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction, waving around some test tube with washing powder in the UN Security Council. Eventually, the US troops invaded Iraq, Saddam Hussein was hanged and later it turned out there had never been any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. You know ? it's one thing to say things and another to actually have evidence."
"After the anti-constitutional coup in Kiev in February, the first thing the new authorities tried to do was to deprive the ethnic minorities of the right to use their native language. This caused great concern among the people living in eastern Ukraine."
"I wouldn't call them either pro-Russian or pro-Ukrainian. They are people who have certain rights, political, humanitarian rights, and they must have a chance to exercise those rights."
"When [the coup] happened some people accepted this regime and were happy about it while other people, say, in eastern and southern Ukraine just won't accept it."
On Crimea, its referendum and historical ties to Russia:
After Crimea voted in its March referendum to join Russia, the West voiced concerns that the people in the region voted at gunpoint.
"Russian troops were in Crimea under the international treaty on the deployment of the Russian military base. It's true that Russian troops helped Crimeans hold a referendum 1) on their independence and 2) on their desire to join the Russian Federation. No one can prevent these people from exercising a right that is stipulated in Article 1 of the UN Charter, the right of nations to self-determination."
"We conducted an exclusively diplomatic and peaceful dialogue ? I want to stress this ? with our partners in Europe and the United States. In response to our attempts to hold such a dialogue and to negotiate an acceptable solution, they supported the anti-constitutional state coup in Ukraine, and following that we could not be sure that Ukraine would not become part of the North Atlantic military bloc. In that situation, we could not allow a historical part of the Russian territory with a predominantly ethnic Russian population to be incorporated into an international military alliance, especially because Crimeans wanted to be part of Russia."
One journalist asked the president whether he wants to recreate the old borders of the Soviet Union.
"We want to use modern policies to improve our competitive advantage, including economic integration. This is what we are doing in the post-Soviet space within the Customs Union and now also within the Eurasian Union."
On US relations and its aggressive foreign policies:
"Speaking of US policy, it's clear that the United States is pursuing the most aggressive and toughest policy to defend its own interests ? at least, this is how the American leaders see it ? and they do it persistently."
"There are basically no Russian troops abroad while US troops are everywhere. There are US military bases everywhere around the world and they are always involved in the fates of other countries, even though they are thousands of kilometers away from US borders."
"So it is ironic that our US partners accuse us of breaching some of these rules," Putin said, apparently referring to Hillary's Clinton's statement on Russia's foreign policy in Eastern Europe, comparing it with Hitler's in the 1930s.
"When people push boundaries too far, it's not because they are strong but because they are weak. But maybe weakness is not the worst quality for a woman."
On Russia, defense, sovereignty, and opposition parties:
Amid the tensions concerning the latest $1.6 billion military deal that France will supply Russia with two Mistral helicopter carriers, Putin said he hopes the two countries will continue to develop their ties.
"Overall, our relations in this area are developing well, and we would like to continue strengthening them ? in aviation, shipbuilding, and other sectors."
"A policy of expansionism and conquest has no future in the modern world. We're confident that Russia can and should be a partner with its traditional allies, in the broad sense, now and also in the future."
"Any country that becomes a member of a military alliance gives away some of its sovereignty to a supranational body. For Russia, this would be unacceptable. As for other countries, it has nothing to do with us. They have to decide such matters for themselves."
"And there's another example: Fran?ois Mitterrand, who spoke of European confederation, with Russia as its member. I think this opportunity still exists and we will have it in the future."
Speaking about internal policies Putin said that Russia is a common democratic state and its "current regime is not connected to any particular person".
"The overwhelming majority of Russian citizens tend to rely on their traditions, their history and, if I may say so, their traditional values. I see this as the foundation and a factor of stability in the Russian state, but none of this is associated with the President as an individual. Moreover, it should be remembered that we only started introducing standard democratic institutions recently. They are still in the process of evolving."
"Some of our opponents say there are unacceptable restrictions. What kind of restrictions do we have? For example, we have banned the promotion of suicide, drugs and pedophilia. These are our restrictions. What's wrong with that?"
"In the United States, since we talked about it, homosexuality is illegal in some states. We impose no criminal liability whatsoever. We banned only promoting homosexuality among minors. It is our right to protect our children and we will do it."