Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was ready to put the country’s nuclear forces on alert as he sought to annex Crimea last year after the fall of a Moscow-backed government in Kiev.
In a nearly three-hour documentary aired on state TV in Russia on Sunday a year after the takeover of the Black Sea Peninsula from Ukraine, Putin showed the lengths he was willing to go to in order to protect Russian-speaking citizens of the province he considered a historic slice of Russia.
The documentary, “Homeward Bound”, features interviews with Putin and reconstructions in which the Russian leader presents himself as the saviour of Crimea, forced to deploy elite troops to prevent a war with “nationalists” who took power in Kiev.
From extracting and saving fallen president Viktor Yanukovych’s life to orchestrating a military intervention, Putin was personally involved step-by-step in the events that were seen by the West as an illegal occupation.
And unsure whether the West would intervene militarily to stop the annexation, he was ready to face “the worst possible turn of events.”
AFP / Viktor Drachev
A member of the Russian troops stands guard near a Ukrainian navy ship in the harbor of Sevastopol on March 5, 2014
Asked whether Russia was ready to put its nuclear forces on alert, Putin said: “We were ready to do this.”
He said he fielded many calls from foreign leaders and told them “that this is our historical territory and Russian people live there, they were in danger, and we cannot abandon them.”
“It was a frank and open position. And that is why I think no one was in the mood to start a world war.”
Putin said in the documentary, that was filmed over eight months, that he had “no doubts” about the success of his operation to take back the peninsula that had been transferred from Russian to Ukrainian jurisdiction in 1954 by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the leader, whose unusual 10-day absence from the public eye has created frenzied speculation in Russia, would watch the final version of the documentary for the first time on Sunday.
– Sea, land fortress –
Putin explained how after Yanukovych fled Kiev in the face of a pro-Western revolution, he organised a secret poll to test the sentiment of the Crimean population.
AFP / Viktor Drachev
Pro-Russian Crimeans celebrate in Sevastopol after partial results showed that about 95.5 percent of voters in Ukraine’s Crimea region supported union with Russia
“But it was not us who carried out the coup d’etat. This was done by nationalists and people with extreme beliefs” in Kiev.
With support for absorption into Russia high, he sent in thousands of Russian special forces, marines and airborne troops to neutralise the Ukrainian military.
“In order to block and disarm 20,000 well-armed men, you need a specific set of personnel. We needed specialists who know how to do it,” said Putin.
He also explains how Russian troops worked for hours to convince troops in Crimea to cross over to their side or resign.
To dissuade an American warship that was in the Black Sea from intervening, Putin ordered the deployment of Russia’s “Bastion” mobile coastal defence missile systems.
“We turned Crimea into a sea and land fortress.”
The annexation of Crimea was a critical event in the Ukrainian crisis which many believed triggered the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine where over 6,000 have since been killed in fighting.
AFP / Dimitar Dilkoff
A Crimean man making the victory sign as he celebrates in Simferopol’s Lenin Square after exit polls showed that about 93 percent of voters in Ukraine’s Crimea region supported union with Russia, on March 16, 2014
It also plunged Moscow’s ties with the West to lows unseen since the Cold War.
The move struck a deep chord with Russians, however, cementing Putin’s 15-year grip on power as his approval ratings have continued to climb in the past year, hitting a record 88 percent, according to figures released last week.
Putin said it had not occurred to him to try and take back Crimea until what he repeatedly describes as a “coup” by pro-Western protesters.
– ‘We saved Yanukovych’s life’ –
He describes how he initially advised Yanukovych not to leave Kiev, and if he did, not to call off his security forces who had clashed repeatedly with the protesters.
“‘Oh, yes, yes, I know that,'” Putin said Yanukovych replied “only then to leave and pull all security forces out!”
Putin said he received countless reports that the pro-Western movement was plotting to kill Yanukovych and that the president’s motorcade had at one point come under fire.
AFP / Alexander Nemenov
A picture taken on March 11, 2014, shows deposed Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych speaking to journalists in southern Russian city of Rostov-on-Don
He said Yanukovych tried to remain on Ukrainian territory but after a few days asked Putin to extract him.
“The fact that we saved his life, the life of his family members, I think it’s a good deed, a noble one,” said Putin.
Putin insisted his actions in Crimea prevented the kind of violence now seen in eastern Ukraine and said it was his “duty” and that he would do the same thing today.
“If you have the inner confidence that you are doing the right thing and that your actions aim to benefit the country and to defend the interests of the people of Russia, if this inner confidence is there, then everything will work out,” Putin said.