Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday admitted for the first time that Russian soldiers were present on the Crimean peninsula before and during the referendum that backed rule from Moscow. "Our goal was to ensure the conditions for a free vote," Putin said, explaining who were the soldiers in uniforms without insignia who appeared in Crimea in late February, many of them surrounding Ukrainian military bases. "Behind the local defence forces were our soldiers. They acted correctly, but decisively and professionally," he said. "We had to protect people from possible use of weapons" on Ukrainian military bases.