MOSCOW/MARIUPOL, UKRAINE – Russian President Vladimir Putin accused Ukraine’s leaders on Thursday of committing a “grave crime” by using the army to try to quell unrest in the east of the country, and did not rule out sending in Russian troops.
But, addressing Russians in his annual televised phone-in, Putin said he hoped he would not need to take such a step, and that diplomacy could succeed in resolving the standoff.
Putin nevertheless said that trust between Russia and the United States had been damaged before the crisis in Ukraine, but that he wanted to restore their cooperation.
“To a certain extent trust has been lost, but we do not think we are to blame,” Putin said in the phone-in with the nation. He said it was U.S. hypocrisy that had brought relations to their worst level since the Cold War: “The United States can act in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya but Russia is not allowed to defend its interests.”
The two countries have been at odds over a range of issues, from U.S. missile defense plans to NATO expansion and the civil war in Syria. To improve ties, Putin said, the United States should respect others’ interests and international law. “I want to emphasize once again, Russia is interested in growing relations with the United States and will do everything to ensure that this confidence is restored,” he said.
The United States has imposed sanctions against some Russians to punish Moscow for the annexation of Crimea from Ukraine, and says it is ready to adopt harsher measures if Russia intervenes further to destabilize Ukraine.
Putin also accused NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, in his previous role as Danish prime minister, of secretly taping and leaking a private conversation between them to the press.
“I could not believe my eyes and ears . . . what kind of trust can there be after such incidents?” he asked. But he added that Moscow was not interested in souring ties with Europe, and that he hoped the feeling was reciprocated.
“We do not intend to spoil the relations between Russia and Europe and hope that this is not part of our European partners’ plans.”
Meanwhile, separatists attacked a base of the Ukrainian national guard overnight and Kiev said three separatists were killed, the worst bloodshed yet in a 10-day pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine, overshadowing crisis talks to resolve the conflict.
Ukrainian, Russian and Western diplomats arrived for the emergency talks in Geneva, but there was little hope of any progress in resolving a crisis that has seen armed pro-Russian fighters seize whole swaths of Ukraine, while Moscow masses tens of thousands of troops on the frontier.
Putin, who overturned decades of post-Cold War diplomacy last month by declaring Russia’s right to intervene in neighboring countries and annex Ukraine’s Crimea region, accused the authorities in Kiev of plunging the country into an “abyss.”
Kiev fears that he will use any violence as a pretext to launch an invasion.
“Instead of realizing that there is something wrong with the Ukrainian government and attempting dialog, they made more threats of force . . . This is another very grave crime by Kiev’s current leaders,” Putin said in the televised question-and-answer session with the Russian public.
“I hope that they are able to realize what a pit, what an abyss the current authorities are in and dragging the country into,” said Putin, who dismissed as “rubbish” accusations that Russian agents were acting in east Ukraine.
At the national guard headquarters in Mariupol there was clear evidence that the building had come under attack. A single gray police jeep was inside the compound on Thursday morning with broken windows, flat tires and bent doors. The gates of the compound had been flattened. There were shell casings outside the gates and several unused petrol bombs.
The marathon session, dominated by questions on Ukraine, saw Putin temper withering criticism of the Ukrainian leadership with more conciliatory comments about the possibility of a compromise to resolve the worst East-West crisis since the Cold War.
He pointedly reminded Europe of its dependence on Russian gas, and defended Russia’s annexation of Crimea as, in part, a response to NATO’s eastward expansion.
While recalling that parliament had granted him the right to use military force in Ukraine, the Kremlin chief said: “I really hope that I do not have to exercise this right and that we are able to solve all today’s pressing issues via political and diplomatic means.”
Ukraine sent in troops this week to try to recapture a series of eastern towns from pro-Russian militants, but their first attempt on Wednesday ended in disarray, with some armored troop carriers retreating and others falling into the hands of the separatists.
Russia refuses to recognize the Ukrainian leadership that took power in February after mass protests forced Viktor Yanukovich — the elected, pro-Moscow president — to flee.
Putin said the campaign to elect a new Ukrainian president next month was being conducted “in an absolutely unacceptable way,” with some candidates being beaten up.
“If everything continues in this way, then of course we cannot recognize as legitimate what is happening and what will happen after May 25,” he said, referring to the date of the vote.
But in more emollient comments, he stressed the importance of crisis talks taking place in Geneva on Thursday between Russia, Ukraine, the United States and the European Union.
In another answer, he added: “I’m sure we will come to a mutual understanding with Ukraine. We will not be able to do without each other.”
Since the toppling of Yanukovich, Russia has asserted its right to intervene in its neighbor to protect the rights of ethnic Russians. Last month it annexed Crimea, a southern peninsula of Ukraine, after residents voted to break away from Kiev in a referendum deemed illegal by the West.
Russia’s neighbors now fear he may not stop at Crimea and may seek to grab back further chunks of former Soviet territory. In comments likely to heighten such concerns, Putin said the people of Transdniestria — a breakaway, Slav-dominated region of ex-Soviet Moldova — should have the right to decide their own fate, though he stressed the need for negotiations. “People should be allowed to determine their own destiny. That’s what we will work on with our partners,” he said.
The United States and the European Union have imposed visa bans and asset freezes on dozens of Russians in retaliation for the annexation of Crimea, but so far avoided wider sanctions that could hurt their own companies as well as Russia’s.
Alluding to that dilemma, Putin cast doubt on whether Europe could end its dependence on Russian gas.
“We sell gas in European countries which have around 30 to 35 percent of their gas balance covered by supplies from Russia. Can they stop buying Russian gas? In my opinion it is impossible,” he said.
At the start of the phone-in, Putin fielded questions from Crimea, where hundreds of sailors, veterans and members of the public were lined up on the sea front in Sevastopol, headquarters of Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
One questioner was interrupted by chants of “Thank you, thank you” as members of the crowd, many waving the Russian tricolor, expressed their gratitude to the Kremlin leader for reabsorbing Crimea.
While Putin was speaking, Ukraine’s state security force said it had detained about 10 Russian citizens with intelligence backgrounds, an assertion Putin denied.
“It’s all nonsense. There are no kinds of Russian units in eastern Ukraine. No special forces, no instructors. They are all local citizens,” he said.
Putin accused the Ukrainian leadership of talking only to its own appointees in the troubled eastern regions instead of opening what he called a genuine dialog with the people.
“The compromise must be found not between third party players but between the different political forces within Ukraine itself,” Putin said. “This is extremely important, it is the key issue.”