Putin denies troops are in eastern Ukraine

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday said he hoped Russia would not have to send troops into eastern Ukraine, calling Kiev's decision to employ military force to break up protests there a "grave concern."

According to the Associated Press, Putin again denied Russian forces have been employed in the region. 

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"It's all nonsense, there are no special units, special forces or instructors in the east of Ukraine," Putin said.

However, Putin acknowledged for the first time Russian forces were deployed in Crimea ahead of the referendum vote to break off from Ukraine and join Russia last month. 

"Our servicemen stood behind the back of Crimea's self-defense forces. They acted politely, but resolutely and professionally," he said. "There was no other way to hold the referendum in an open, honest and honorable way and allow the people to express their opinion."

Putin described talks in Geneva on Thursday between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and European countries as "very important.” Only through dialogue can order be imposed, he said. 

"I think the start of today's talks is very important, as it's very important now to think together about how to overcome this situation and offer a real dialogue to the people," Putin said.

Putin's words during a televised call-in show come as Ukraine and the west have accused pro-Russian separatists, backed by Putin’s government, of taking over at least 10 government buildings in eastern Ukraine. Russia has massed nearly 40,000 troops along the eastern border of the country as well, according to the U.S. 

A Ukrainian National Guard unit reportedly killed three protesters and injured more than a dozen others Thursday while holding back an attack at a port near the Black Sea in the country. 

During an interview Wednesday night, President Obama said Russia does not want a war with the U.S. 

"Mr. Putin's decisions are not just bad for Ukraine; over the long term, they're gonna be bad for Russia," Obama said. "Now, we want to give diplomacy a chance as long as ultimately the decisions are being made by Ukrainians. Not by Russians, not by Americans, not by other European nations, but by Ukrainians themselves."

The White House has levied sanctions on a number of officials associated with the annexation of Crimea last month. The White House said Wednesday it has additional sanctions prepared if the situation escalates.