Ousted Ukraine president says he’s surprised by Putin’s silence

February 28

Toward the end of a self-justifying news conference Friday, Viktor Yanukovych said he was surprised that Russian President Vladimir Putin has “kept silent” about the crisis in Ukraine.

In his first public appearance since he fled Kiev a week ago, Yanukovych maintained that he is still president of his country and that the parliament that ousted him is illegitimate. He said Russia, where he is currently staying, is morally obligated to set things right but bluntly rejected the possibility of Russian military interference.

So far, Putin has said very little about Ukraine, an indication of continuing uncertainty in Moscow about how to handle the Ukrainian crisis.

Russia has launched snap military maneuvers near Ukraine’s border and is playing an undefined role in the unrest in Crimea. Moscow has provided a stage for members of its parliament who wish to castigate Ukraine, and shares Yanukovych’s opinion of the new authorities in Kiev.

But Yanukovych’s Russian hosts didn’t offer him the trappings that are customary at a news conference by a visiting head of state. There was no display of protocol, no meetings, no honor guard. The event took place in a trade hall in Rostov-on-Don, a city that is close to Ukraine but a long way from the Kremlin.


Then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych winks at Russian President Vladimir Putin during a signing ceremony in Moscow in December. (Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images)

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Yanukovych said he had talked to Putin one time on the phone since arriving in Russia and they had agreed to meet when Putin has time free to do so.

The Kremlin announced Friday that Putin had directed his officials to maintain normal trade relations with Ukraine, consult with other countries and the International Monetary Fund over Ukraine’s economy and consider providing humanitarian relief to Crimea.

These actions, which are not considered provocative, are seen as signs that the Kremlin has given up on Yanukovych and is trying to decide whom to engage with in Kiev.

Putin’s silence, according to some reports, could stem from his being caught by surprise last Saturday when a deal for Ukrainians to share government power unraveled. He was portrayed as furious at not having better intelligence, and there are suggestions that some officials in the FSB security service have lost their jobs. Russia’s ambassador to Ukraine was recalled, perhaps not so much as a sign of displeasure with Kiev as with him.

Late Friday, Putin had conversations with several European leaders about Ukraine.

“It was emphasized that it is extremely important not to allow further escalation of violence and normalize the situation as soon as possible,” the Russian presidential press service said.

Warning from Obama

In an unscheduled appearance at the White House on Friday afternoon, President Obama said the United States is “deeply concerned” by reports of military movements by the Russian federation inside Ukraine and warned that “there will be costs for any military intervention.”

Putin is waiting to see how events shake out and who emerges in a leadership role in Kiev, Dmitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center said Thursday. He said that the Russian president, having lost his bid to draw Ukraine into a new economic union, at least for now, is in a reactive and watchful position.

Putin almost certainly does not want to see armed conflict in Ukraine, analysts said. With the economy teetering here, Russia can easily choose to apply pressure through trade measures, said Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Yanukovych casts blame

In Rostov-on-Don, Yanukovych maintained that he never gave police orders to shoot protesters. Nearly 90 people died over three days of intense clashes last week.

Pavel Sheremet, one of the organizers of the protest at Kiev’s Independence Square, or Maidan, tweeted moments later: “He didn’t understand what happened, and probably believes that the people killed themselves.”

The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office announced Friday evening that it had made a formal request to Russia for Yanukovych’s extradition to face murder charges.

Yanukovych insisted that Ukraine must revert to the terms of the Feb. 21 agreement that would have allowed him to stay in power until presidential elections in December and created a cabinet of “national unity.”

That agreement went out the window hours later when Yanukovych bolted from Kiev after, he said, his car was fired upon.

“He didn’t learn anything,” said Igor Burakovsky, head of the Institute for Economic Research and Policy Consulting here. Going back to the agreement is impossible, he said.

“He lost. He’s living in some other reality,” Burakovsky said. “And I cannot understand Mr. Putin. He’s partnering with a guy like this?”

Yanukovych, speaking in Russian with Ukrainian flags behind him, blamed the chaos on Western manipulation and said he would not return to his country until his security could be guaranteed.

He called his opponents “pro-fascist” and “scum” and said Russia should intervene, although he did not specify how.

“It would not be correct on my part to say what Russia needs to do,” Yanukovych said. “But Russia cannot stand aside; it cannot be indifferent to the destiny of such a big partner as Ukraine.”

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He said he left the country by making his way by car from Donetsk in eastern Ukraine to the Crimean Peninsula, an autonomous region with a largely pro-Russian population.

He insisted he had not fled Kiev but left only because of security concerns. His leaving brought on “lawlessness, terror, complete chaos,” he said, although Kiev has been much quieter in his absence.

“I would like to offer my apologies to the veterans, to the Ukrainian people,” he said, “that I did not have the strength to stop the chaos that is happening in Ukraine right now.”

Yanukovych said he was in Rostov-on-Don because he has a friend who lives nearby.

Authorities in Switzerland and Austria, meanwhile, moved Friday to block any assets that Yanukovych and his son Oleksandr might have hidden in those countries, news agencies reported.

The Swiss launched a corruption investigation against them focused on what prosecutors described as “aggravated money laundering.”

Austria said it was freezing the bank accounts of Viktor and Oleksandr Yanukovych and 16 other people linked to Ukraine’s former government pending a European Union decision on whether to impose sanctions on them.

Lally reported from Moscow. Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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