MOSCOW, April 17 (Reuters) - Russian President Vladimir Putin held an annual televised question-and-answer session with the Russian public on Thursday, addressing topics including the crisis in Ukraine, Russia's relationship with the West and government surveillance.
Following are highlights from his answers:
"Instead of realising that there is something wrong with the Ukrainian government and attempting dialogue, they made more threats of force ... this is another very grave crime by Kiev's current leaders."
"The presidential race is being run in an absolutely unacceptable way...If everything continues in this way, then of course we cannot recognise as legitimate what is happening and what will happen after (the elections on) May 25."
"I hope that they are able to realise what a pit, what an abyss the current authorities are in and dragging the country into."
"The start of today's (Geneva) talks are very important, because it is important that we together think about how to get out of the situation."
"I'm sure we will come to a mutual understanding with Ukraine. We will not be able to do without each other."
RUSSIA AND EAST UKRAINE
"It's all nonsense. There are no kinds of Russian units in eastern Ukraine. No special forces, no instructors. They are all local citizens."
"The Federation Council (the upper house of parliament) granted the president the right to use military force in Ukraine. I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today's pressing issues via political and diplomatic means.
"We must do everything to help these people (in eastern Ukraine) defend their rights and independently determine their own destiny. This is what we're going to push for."
RUSSIA AND CRIMEA
"We had to take unavoidable steps so that events did not develop as they are currently developing in southeast Ukraine... Of course our troops stood behind Crimea's self-defence forces."
RUSSIAN GAS AND EUROPE
"Of course, everyone is taking care about supply diversification. There, in Europe, they talk about increasing independence from the Russian supplier... It's just like we begin to talk and take action towards independence from our consumers."
"We sell gas in European countries which have around 30-35 percent of their gas balance covered by supplies from Russia. Can they stop buying Russian gas? In my opinion it is impossible."
RUSSIA AND SANCTIONS
"Probably it was an attempt to make me the main target of the sanctions. But as for these people - yes, these are my good acquaintances, my friends. They have earned their money, some of them even before we met."
He said the wife of Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko, the co-owner of gas producer Novatek, had been unable to pay for a back operation because of a blocked bank card.
"Of course this is simply a violation of human rights. It has nothing to do with common sense."
"We are often faced with a lack of understanding of our position and sometimes even with an unwillingness to understand... (but) in general we do not intend to isolate ourselves."
RUSSIA AND NATO
"Our decision on Crimea was partly due to ... considerations that if we do nothing, then at some point, guided by the same principles, NATO will drag Ukraine in and they will say: 'It doesn't have anything to do with you.'"
"When the infrastructure of a military bloc is moving toward our borders, it causes us some concerns and questions. We need to take some steps in response."
"NATO ships would have ended up in the city of Russian navy glory, Sevastopol."
"The deployment of these (missile defence) systems near our borders cancels out our strategic land-based missile positions ... We have to do something in response. It is fuelling an arms race."
"We will continue these negotiations but in any case we will do everything possible to guarantee the security of the Russian people."
RUSSIA'S RELATIONSHIP WITH THE WEST
"To a certain extent trust has been lost, but we do not think we are to blame... The United States can act in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya but Russia is not allowed to defend its interests."
"I want to emphasize once again, Russia is interested in growing relations with the United States and will do everything to ensure that this confidence is restored."
"The Iron Curtain is a Soviet invention...We have no intention of closing off our country and our society from anyone."
"We do not intend to spoil the relations between Russia and Europe and hope that this is not part of our European partners' plans."
IN RESPONSE TO SNOWDEN QUESTION ON GOVERNMENT SURVEILLANCE
Russia regulates communications as part of criminal investigations, but "on a massive scale, on an uncontrolled scale we certainly do not allow this and I hope we will never allow it."
Russian authorities need consent from a court to conduct such surveillance on a specific individual "and for this reason there is no (surveillance) of a mass character here and cannot be in accordance with the law".
(Compiled by Alessandra Prentice; Editing by Lidia Kelly, John Stonestreet)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.