AFP – US Secretary of State John Kerry gestures as he arrives at the International Airport in Kiev on Tuesday for talks with Ukraine’s interim government, amid an escalating crisis in Crimea.
Washington is likely to take steps on sanctions against Russia “later in this week”, a US official travelling with Secretary of State John Kerry to Kiev. “I think there will be movement on sanctions very likely later in this week and there is a whole spectrum of sanctions,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday that Ukraine’s ousted president Viktor Yanukovych remained its only legitimate leader despite fleeing to Russia but conceded he lacked any political future.
“I think he has no political future – I told him that. As for playing a role in his fate, we did that purely from humanitarian reasons,” Putin said of Yanukovych, who took refuge in southern Russia after crossing from Ukraine in a way that has not been made public.
Putin said Russia viewed Yanukovych as legally Ukraine’s president.
“The legitimate president, purely legally, is undoubtedly Yanukovych,” Putin said.
Crucially, Putin said this meant Russian intervention in Ukraine would be justified because Moscow had received a request for protection of its citizens from Yanukovych.
“We have a direct request from the acting and legitimate – as I have already said – president Viktor Yanukovych about using armed forces to protect the lives, health and freedom of Ukrainian citizens,” Putin said.
Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin showed the letter dated March 1 at Security Council talks on Monday.
Putin spoke scornfully of his erstwhile ally Yanukovych, who drew his supporters from the Russian-speaking part of Ukraine and in November agreed to scrap a deal with the European Union under pressure from Russia.
“Do you sympathise with him?” one journalist asked.
“No, I have completely different feelings,” Putin said.
But he said he believed Yanukovych had risked being killed by protesters when he fled Kiev late last month.
“Death is the easiest (way) to get rid of a legitimate president. That would have happened. I think they would have just killed him,” Putin said.
Yanukovych said he fled Ukraine after he and his family received death threats and his car was shot at as he drove out of Kiev.
Putin said that Yanukovych had essentially handed over his powers on 21 February by signing agreements with the opposition leaders last month, counter-signed by international mediators.
He “practically gave up all his powers anyway. And I think he – and I told him this – had no chances of being re-elected,” Putin said.
He said he understood peaceful protesters against Yanukovych: “Of course people wanted changes.”
Asked about a rumour reported in Ukrainian media on Tuesday that Yanukovych had died from a heart attack, Putin denied it.
“After he came to Russia, I saw him once, that was literally two days ago. He was alive and healthy. He will catch a cold yet – at the funerals of those who spread that information,” Putin added with characteristic black humour.
He also denied that Russian troops were operating in the Ukrainian Black Sea region of Crimea, while sending Moscow’s forces to Ukraine would be an entirely legitimate move but also a last resort.
Putin, who on Saturday won approval from Russia’s upper house of parliament to send troops into Ukraine due to the stand-off in Crimea, said there was currently no need for military action — but Moscow reserved the right to do so.
Putin also accused Western countries of meddling with Ukraine in an unpredictable experiment to create democracy in a former Soviet state.
“I sometimes have the idea that some kind of lab workers are sitting in America and doing experiments, like on rats, without understanding the consequences of what they are doing.”
He expressed concern over what kind of leader could emerge in Ukraine after the elections.