Yanukovich defiant as armed groups take airfields, buildings in Crimea

Gunmen believed by Ukraine to be part of Kremlin-backed ground invasion

Kiev residents react as they watch a television broadcast of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s news conference yesterday.  Photograph: Reuters/Alex Kuzmin

Kiev residents react as they watch a television broadcast of ousted Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovich’s news conference yesterday. Photograph: Reuters/Alex Kuzmin


Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovich has refused to accept defeat at the hands of revolutionaries, who yesterday blamed Russia for the seizure by unidentified gunmen of airports and official buildings in the mostly pro-Moscow region of Crimea.

“If a president has not resigned, or been impeached, and if he is still alive . . . then he remains the president,” Mr Yanukovich said yesterday in the southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don, where he made his first public appearance since fleeing Kiev a week earlier.

“I intend to continue to struggle for the future of Ukraine, against terror and fear . . . What’s going on now is lawlessness . . . Decisions in parliament were taken under duress,” he told a group of mostly Russian journalists.

Loss of power
In an often vague and rambling performance, Mr Yanukovich could not explain how he would regain power in Ukraine. Most members of his party have denounced him and he is wanted by Kiev, along with his closest aides, for questioning over the deaths of more than 90 people, during a revolution that ended in carnage when snipers opened fire on demonstrators.

“I place responsibility on those who led the country into catastrophe,” Mr Yanukovich said of the bloodshed. “That is the opposition, and also representatives of the west, who covered for Maidan,” he added, using the Ukrainian term for Kiev’s Independence Square and the protests centred there.

Claiming that power had been seized by “nationalist, fascist thugs who represent a small minority of Ukrainian citizens,” Mr Yanukovich said Kiev’s government was “illegitimate” and would only lead the country into deeper crisis.

While thanking a “patriotically minded Ukrainian officer” for helping him escape Ukraine for Russia, he bristled at suggestions he had been ousted or fled office. “I was not scared . . . [and] no one overthrew me,” he declared.

“I was forced to leave Ukraine because of direct threats to my loved ones,” he said, claiming his car had been attacked while leaving Kiev and an accompanying vehicle riddled with bullets.

Mr Yanukovich said events in Crimea were “an absolutely natural reaction to the gangster coup that took place in Kiev,” but rejected calls from some in the region for Russian intervention. “I consider any military action unacceptable, and do not plan to call for military assistance. I think Ukraine should remain united and undivided.”

He did say, however, that Russia “should, and is obliged to act” on Ukraine: “Knowing the character of [Russian president] Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, I am surprised that he has until now maintained such a reserved silence.”

Military manoeuvres
Ukraine’s new government believes Russia is already interfering in Crimea, where armed groups last night controlled two airfields and local government buildings, and armoured personnel carriers and military trucks were on the move.

“These are separate groups . . . commanded by the Kremlin,” said Andriy Parubiy, secretary of Ukraine’s national security and defence council.

Interior minister Arsen Avakov said: “I consider what has happened to be an armed invasion and occupation in violation of all international agreements and norms.”

In rapidly moving developments last night, Ukraine’s biggest telephone company said it had lost contact with Crimea, and the peninsula’s main broadcasting building had been occupied by armed men. Around Crimea’s parliament in Simferopol, groups of ethnic Russians – who form the majority of the region’s two million population – were cheering “Russia, Russia!” and “Fascism will not win!”

Russian media and pro-Moscow politicians, including Mr Yanukovich, for months told people in Crimea and other Russophone parts of Ukraine the revolutionaries were all violent ultra-nationalists, stoking fear of far-right extremists.

Most Crimean Russians support intervention by Moscow, but the large Tatar community vehemently opposes it, having suffered brutal repression during Soviet times. The United Nations Security Council was expected to hold a closed-door emergency session on the escalating crisis last night, at the urgent request of Kiev.

US secretary of state John Kerry warned Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov yesterday over the danger of any military action in Crimea, and top EU officials and German chancellor Angela Merkel expressed concern to Mr Putin about rising tension there.

After British premier David Cameron spoke to Mr Putin, London’s foreign secretary William Hague said he would travel to Kiev tomorrow for talks with the new government. Suddenly finding themselves in power after three months of protests, Ukraine’s ministers are now battling to save the country of 46 million people from bankruptcy.

Kiev is seeking western aid and says it needs $35 billion to get through the next two years.

Several EU states have frozen assets belonging to Mr Yanukovich and his allies, in the hope of recouping some of the $70 billion that they allegedly stole during less than four years in power.