In a press conference in the Russian city of Rostov-on-Don today, Ukraine's deposed President Viktor Yanukovych blamed the West for his ouster and insisted that European foreign ministers, who last week brokered a deal that would have kept him temporarily in power, must prevail upon the "illegitimate authorities" in Kiev to let him return to office.
Though Mr. Yanukovych arrived dramatically in Rostov aboard an aircraft from Moscow escorted by Russian fighter planes, his sometimes rambling hour-long performance fell far short of the ringing defiance and action plan that some had expected.
In fact, it offered few clues about what he plans to do next, or even how he thinks Ukrainians ought to address the explosive political and economic crises that the former president left behind when he fled Kiev in the middle of the night exactly a week ago.
"Yanukovych is fading into history. There is zero chance for him to stage a comeback, and the only question hanging over this press conference is why Russian authorities even offered him a stage to speak on," says Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant. "I suppose he still has some uses, perhaps to corroborate the Russian accusation that the West was behind this destabilization of Ukraine."
A president 'betrayed'
Yanukovych said he has not met with Russian President Vladimir Putin since arriving in Russia – probably last Tuesday – but did speak with him by phone and was told a meeting will occur when Mr. Putin "has the opportunity." To date, Putin has remained silent in public about the galloping crisis in Ukraine.
The main theme, to which Yanukovych returned repeatedly, was that European foreign ministers who signed the eleventh-hour accord between Yanukovych and Ukrainian opposition leaders had perfidiously betrayed him. Instead of retaining power during a year-long transition to a new constitution and fresh elections, the European officials let armed radicals drive him from Kiev in a hail of gunfire. As a result of their failure to enforce the deal, he said, Kiev was overrun by radical gunmen sowing "lawlessness, terror, and chaos.” He termed his ouster "bandit regime change" by “people who promote violence.”
"I urge them to hand back power. There's still time," Yanukovych said.
The other high points of Yanukovych's address included an ambivalent apology to the Ukrainian people. "I'm ashamed. I'd like to offer my apologies ... for the fact that I didn't have enough strength to maintain stability and prevent this mess from happening." He said he has no intention of participating in the "illegitimate" presidential elections slated for May 25 by the new authorities in Kiev, and will return to Ukraine only when conditions for his "personal safety" have been assured.
By his own account, Yanukovych left Kiev last Friday night, with armed militants firing on his car. He traveled to Kharkov, capital of eastern Ukraine, where he was supposed to address a gathering of regional politicians on Saturday. But again, fears for his personal safety led him to cancel that meeting and travel on to Donetsk after the Ukrainian military forced his helicopter to turn back from the Russian border city of Lugansk. From there he went by car to Crimea. As to how he reached Russia from there, he would only say it was "thanks to patriotically minded officers, who did their duty and helped me to stay alive."
Asked about the turmoil engulfing the Russian-majority autonomous province of Crimea, Yanukovych said he sympathized with the people there who are forming armed militia units to "defend their homes and families.... Everything that's happening in Crimea today is a natural response to [moves by] the bandit regime in Kiev." But he added: "I appeal to Crimeans to avoid conflicts. Of course Crimea must remain part of Ukraine."
He also said that he would not request Russian military assistance to restore him to power. "That's unacceptable," he said. "Ukraine must remain a united country."
Tensions in the Crimea ratcheted up Friday, as armed gunmen – suspected by many to be out-of-uniform Russian troops from the naval base at Sevastopol – took control of the territory's two main airports. Observers say their likely objective is to prevent new authorities in Kiev from reinforcing Ukrainian military and police forces and block any political groups from western Ukraine from trying to infiltrate. Crimea is a peninsula jutting out into the Black Sea, and getting there by road or rail entails a 12-hour trip through eastern Ukraine.
Ukraine's acting interior minister, Arsen Avakov, took to his Facebook page to denounce the interference with Crimean airports as "armed invasion and occupation.” The acts were “a direct armed provocation leading to bloodshed on the territory of a sovereign state," he wrote.
Authorities in Moscow denied being behind the airport seizures and suggested it was the work of local "self-defense" units.
More ominously, Russian parliamentarians are reportedly moving forward toward a law that would make it easy for Ukrainians to claim Russian citizenship, as well as another to "simplify" procedures for annexing new territories to Russia.
After Russia's 2008 war with Georgia, it granted "independence" to the two Georgian breakaway territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which some analysts suggest could be a model for Russian dealings with Crimea.
On Wednesday Russia declared a military alert and mobilized about 150,000 troops in areas adjoining its border with Ukraine.
"This is all theater of course," says Alexey Malashenko, an expert with the Carnegie Center in Moscow. "But it's very dangerous theater, because the situation is so unpredictable that the slightest miscalculation could start a real war."