SOCHI, Russia — Russian President Vladimir Putin maintained on Thursday that Moscow did not instigate the Crimea crisis and thanked Paralympic leaders for not wading into the tensions over Ukraine.
After Russia's military takeover over Ukraine's Crimea peninsula, several nations, including the United States and Britain, declined to send delegations to the opening ceremony of the Winter Paralympics in Sochi last week.
Sochi's closing ceremony on Sunday will coincide with Crimea's referendum — denounced by Ukraine's government and Western nations as illegal — on whether to join Russia.
With Russia continuing to deny its forces are active in Crimea, Putin remained defiant Thursday as he declared the Paralympics a success in a speech for visiting sports officials. Although Putin didn't name Ukraine in his speech, he referred to the "problematic issues" taking place against the backdrop of the games.
"I would like to thank you for the Paralympic Games staying out of politics and the complicated circumstances, which you all know about very well, had no impact on the games," Putin said through a translator, alongside International Paralympic Committee President Philip Craven.
"And I would like to assure you that Russia did not initiate, it was not an instigator, of these difficult circumstances which you know and we are talking about here."
Russia has described the troops in Crimea who wear green uniforms without insignia as local "self-defense forces." But many of the troops, who are armed with advanced heavy weaponry, are being transported by vehicles with Russian license plates.
Despite Ukraine claiming its sovereignty and territorial integrity had been violated by Russia, the country still sent a team to Sochi. Ukraine is third in the medals table, which is headed by Russia.
Putin maintained that the Winter Paralympics, which are witnessing record global television interest and unprecedented crowds at venues, had displayed "our invariably kind attitude towards friends."
"Russia has sincerely tried to host these games at the highest level so that they could strengthened the spirit of the Paralympic movement and its values, not only in Russia but all around the world," Putin said.
Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris