ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — Defensive and at times tearful, Ukraine’s ousted president conceded Wednesday that he made a mistake when he invited Russian troops into Crimea and vowed to try to negotiate with Vladimir Putin to get the coveted Black Sea peninsula back.
“Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy,” Viktor Yanukovych told The Associated Press in his first interview since fleeing to Russia in February, following monthslong protests focused on corruption and his decision to seek closer ties to Russia instead of the European Union.
Putin said last month that Yanukovych had asked Russia to send its troops to Crimea to protect its people – a request seen as treason by many Ukrainians. Russian troops quickly overran Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority, taking over government and military facilities on the pretext of protecting Russians.
Asked about the move, Yanukovych said he made a mistake.
“I was wrong,” he told the AP and Russia’s state NTV television, speaking in Russian. “I acted on my emotions.”
Still, Yanukovych insisted that Russia’s takeover of Crimea wouldn’t have happened if he had stayed in power. 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, the 63-year-old Yanukovych has rarely been seen, even as he has insisted he is still the country’s true leader. While Putin has been openly dismissive of Yanukovych, the Russian president has also described him as the legitimate leader and his ouster as illegal.
Yanukovych said he has spoken with Putin only twice by phone and once in person since he arrived in Russia, describing their talks as “difficult.” He said he 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.
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.
Yanukovych’s comments on the Black Sea peninsula appeared to represent an attempt to shore up at least some support in his homeland, where even his backers have deserted him.
While there is no expectation that Russia will roll back its annexation, Yanukovych’s statements could widen Putin’s options in talks on settling the Ukrainian crisis by creating an impression that Moscow could be open for discussions on Crimea’s status in the future.
Echoing the Kremlin’s position, Yanukovych said the Crimean referendum, in which residents overwhelmingly voted to join Russia, was a response to threats posed by radical nationalists in Ukraine.
However, he did not answer several questions about whether he would support a move by Russia, which has deployed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border, to move into other areas of the country on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians.
Yanukovych echoed the key Kremlin demand for settling the Ukrainian crisis, pushing for a referendum that could turn Ukraine into a loosely knit federation. He said such a vote should be followed by constitutional reform, and only after that should Ukraine have a national election.
The interim government in Kiev has scheduled a presidential election for May 25.
Yanukovych 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.
Born in the Donetsk coal-mining region of eastern Ukraine, Yanukovych worked at a metal plant before becoming an industrial manager and rising through the ranks to become a local governor and then prime minister, the country’s second-most powerful job at the time. His critics note his criminal record for assault and robbery during his youth and say he lacks a proper education to qualify for running the country.
After he fled Ukraine, crowds of Ukrainians flocked to view Yanukovych’s opulent country residence outside of Kiev and were shocked by its extravagant display of wealth amid the country’s financial ruin.
On Wednesday, he denied any corruption surrounding the estate. He spoke with pride and affection about his collection of dozens of classic cars, saying he bought them over many years. He also said he hadn’t seen or used a golden loaf of bread found in his residence that attracted much attention and sarcasm.
Yanukovych insisted he gave no advantages or special privileges to his dentist-turned-billionaire son, Alexander, who is said to have amassed a fortune during his father’s rule and angered other Ukrainian tycoons by taking over some of the country’s most profitable assets.
He firmly denied that he gave the orders to shoot demonstrators in downtown Kiev in February, saying his reluctance to use force against the protesters who paralyzed Kiev for months brought criticism from his supporters that he was being too soft.
The government now in power has slapped Yanukovych with criminal charges in connection with those deaths.
The long-time politician said he hopes to return to Ukraine someday, but didn’t offer any details on how he could reclaim power.
With tears welling in his eyes, Yanukovych said he was ready to sacrifice his life during the escalating protests but realized that doing so would be simply a gift to the “neo-fascists” who he said seized power by force. He claimed they opened fire with machine guns on his convoy as he was leaving the Ukrainian capital.
“I didn’t want to give them my life just for nothing,” he said.