Ukraine’s ousted president has admitted he was “wrong” in inviting Russian troops into Crimea and vowed to try to persuade Russia to return the coveted Black Sea peninsula.
Viktor Yanukovich made the comments on Wednesday in his first media interview since he was forced to leave power after three months of protests against corruption and his decision to seek closer ties to Russia instead of the European Union.
Defensive and at times teary-eyed, Yanukovich told the Associated Press news agency and Russia’s state NTV television that he still hoped to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to get the annexed region back.
“I was wrong,” he said. “I acted on my emotions.”
“Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy,” the 63-year-old Yanukovich, who has been living in Russia since fleeing Ukraine, said, insisting that Moscow’s takeover of Crimea would not have happened if he had stayed in power.
Yanukovich denied the allegations of corruption, saying he built his palatial residence outside of Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, with his own money.
He also denied responsibility for the sniper deaths of about 80 protesters in Kiev in February, for which he has been charged by Ukraine’s interim government.
As the world has watched the tumultuous events in Ukraine, Yanukovich has been keeping a low profile, even as he has insisted he is still the country’s true leader.
While Putin has been openly dismissive of Yanukovich, the Russian president has also described him as the legitimate leader and his ouster as illegal.
Yanukovich’s statement about Crimea appeared to represent an attempt to shore up at least some support in his homeland, where even his supporters have deserted him.
Russia annexed Crimea last month following a hastily called referendum held two weeks after Russian troops took control of the region. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote and the annexation as illegal.
While Russia can hardly be expected to roll back its annexation, Yanukovich’s statement could widen Putin’s options in the talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis by creating an impression that Moscow could be open for discussions on Crimea’s status in the future.
Talks with Putin
Yanukovich has now lost the Ukrainian presidency twice in the past decade. In 2004, his presidential win was thrown out after the Orange Revolution protests caused the fraudulent election to be annulled.
Yanukovich said he has spoken with Putin twice by phone and once in person since he arrived in Russia – describing their talks as “difficult” – and hopes to have more meetings with the Russian leader to negotiate Crimea’s return to Ukraine.
“We must search for ways … so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible … but be part of Ukraine,” he said.
Yanukovich said the Crimean referendum in March – a vote in which residents overwhelmingly voted to join Russia – was a response to threats posed by radical nationalists in Ukraine.
Putin said last month that Yanukovich had asked Russia to send its troops to Ukraine to protect its people – a request seen as treason by many Ukrainians. Asked about the move, Yanukovich said he had made a mistake.