In his first interview since fleeing to Russia, Ukraine’s ousted president admitted that he was “wrong” to have invited Russian troops into Crimea and vowed to try to persuade Russia to return the Black Sea peninsula.
Defensive and at times teary-eyed, Viktor Yanukovich told Russia’s state NTV television that he still hopes to negotiate with Russian president Vladimir Putin to get the annexed region back.
“Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy,” the 63-year-old Mr Yanukovich said, insisting that Russia’s takeover of Crimea would not have happened if he had stayed in power.
He fled Ukraine in February after three months of protests focused on corruption and on his decision to seek closer ties to Russia instead of the European Union.
Mr Yanukovich denied the allegations of corruption, claiming he built his palatial residence outside of Kiev with his own money, despite some reports suggesting it was likely to have cost tens of millions of pounds.
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.
His comments, likely to be challenged by opponents, came as Russia yesterday accused Nato of reverting to the language of the Cold War by suspending co-operation with Moscow, and said neither side would gain from the move.
It said the decision by Nato foreign ministers to suspend all practical co-operation with Russia – in protest at its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine – created a sense of “déjà vu”.
Foreign ministers from the 28-member Nato bloc, gathering in Brussels for their first meeting since Russia’s annexation of Crimea, issued a statement in which they condemned Russia’s “illegal” annexation.
Secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen said the move was the gravest threat to European security for a generation. There could be no “business as usual”, he added.
He had earlier denied reports Russia was pulling its forces back from its border with Ukraine.
Nato sources said some 35,000 to 40,000 Russian troops are massed near Ukraine’s eastern border.
Announcing the formal suspension of ties, Mr Rasmussen said Nato stood by its allies.
He also said Nato would offer Ukraine greater access to alliance exercises and support the development of its military.
That prompted Russian foreign ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich to issue a statement which said: “The language rather resembles the verbal jousting of the Cold War era”.
“It is not hard to imagine who will gain from the suspension of co-operation between Russia and Nato on countering modern threats and challenges to international and European security, in particular in areas such as the fight against terrorism, piracy and natural and man-made disasters,” Mr Lukashevich added. “In any case, it will certainly not be Russia or Nato member states.”
Meanwhile, Russian officials yesterday increased pressure on Ukraine to disarm paramilitary groups, urging it to go beyond “sham” promises to crack down on the far-right.
Moscow also expressed concern that the Ukrainian government was not holding a public debate on plans to reform the constitution.
On Tuesday, Ukraine’s parliament ordered security forces to disarm illegal armed groups, and police shut down the Kiev base of a far-right nationalist group, Right Sector, after a shooting in which three were wounded.