Russian President Vladimir Putin has acknowledged that Russian troops were present in Crimea before the referendum and argued that was necessary to let Crimeans make the choice on the future of the region.

The armed men in military uniform without insignia, dubbed “the little green men” or “the polite people,” who were present in Crimea before and during the referendum there, were Russian troops, Vladimir Putin acknowledged speaking at a Q&A session on Thursday. The president said he never concealed the fact from his foreign counterparts, and explained to them that it was the only way to ensure the referendum on the region’s status would be carried out peacefully. 

“Crimean self-defense forces were of course backed by Russian servicemen,” Putin said. “They acted very appropriately, but as I’ve already said decisively and professionally.”

Putin had to touch upon the Crimea topic multiple times throughout his Q&A session. He emphasized that Russia did not acquire Crimea by force, but created, with the help of its special forces, conditions for Crimeans to decide upon their own future.