The Russian government must make every effort for ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia to "feel as comfortable as possible," Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Monday, opening a Kremlin meeting with activists of public organisations established by Russia's ethnic Ukrainians. The Russian president invited the audience to comment on the state of interstate relations between Russia and Ukraine and to put forward proposals as to "what should be done to cement these relations and relations between the two peoples." Putin emphasised that Russians and Ukrainians had lived together for thousands of years, and although in some periods the two peoples had been divided by borders, they had "never lived separately." The head of state noted that today Russia and Ukraine are two independent multiethnic states and that 4.5 million ethnic Ukrainians live in Russia, while 11 million ethnic Russians live in Ukraine. Putin said he was against imposing on Ukraine "the role of a buffer between Russia and Europe." In his view, such a scheme "plays down" Ukraine's role and independent significance. Russia and Ukraine make "an inalienable part of European culture, politics and economy," the president emphasised. Russia highly values everything connected with Ukraine, above all, Ukrainian culture, Putin said. He added that Ukrainian culture has always been "especially popular" in Russia and that Russians have always seen "a spark of God" in it. The president described a recent congress of ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia as a "timely event." He noted that he and Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had recently opened Year of Ukraine in Russia, while Kuchma had proposed holding Year of Russia in Ukraine. "These initiatives are very positive," the Russian president said.