ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — Ukraine’s humiliated fugitive president appeared at a shopping center here Friday to declare himself the country’s lawful leader, calling on President Vladimir Putin to act but vowing to oppose military intervention by Russia or anyone else. He spoke hours after mysterious Russian-speaking gunmen took up positions around two airports in Crimea, prompting Ukraine’s new leaders to announce that an intervention had already begun.
After weeks of popular protests, warlike violence, fear, grief and jubilation, Ukraine’s political crisis descended Friday into an absurd, if ominous, swirl of confusion that heightened the crisis facing a country on the brink of economic and political collapse.
Even as frantic reports circulated that Russia had intervened decisively in Crimea, Putin held a series of telephone conversations with European leaders in which he agreed, according to a British account of his conversation with Prime Minister David Cameron, to Ukraine’s holding new presidential elections in May, suggesting that the Kremlin was resigned to a new leadership there to replace the ousted, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
“I think any military action is unacceptable,” Yanukovych said at a news conference here, appearing in public for the first time in a week, since he signed an agreement with Ukraine’s opposition leaders ending months of protests that took a violent and deadly turn last week in Kiev, killing dozens. “I have no intention to ask for military support. I think Ukraine should remain one indivisible country.”
Yanukovych vowed to return to power, however improbable that now seems, given the erosion of his political support, even among Russia’s leadership and his former allies in Ukraine, including his long-serving press secretary who gave an unflattering interview published Friday. Sergei Tigipko, a former deputy prime minister and still influential member of parliament, said that he was not interested in what Yanukovych had to say. Asked if Yanukovych was still the legitimate president, Tigipko answered tersely: “No.”
Yanukovych, sharply dressed in a suit, denounced the new interim leaders in Ukraine’s capital as fascists whose actions had been abetted by the West, and said the legal moves they had taken since he fled Kiev a week ago had no standing. Among those, he said, was the resolution stripping him of his authority because he had effectively abandoned his presidency.
“Nobody deposed me,” he said, speaking in Russian. “I had to leave Ukraine because there was a direct and imminent threat to my life.” He called for a restoration of the government that he once led.
He said that the warlike events in Crimea — including the seizure of the region’s capital Thursday and reports that the airspace had been closed — were a “natural reaction” to what he called a “gangster coup” in Kiev by violent nationalists. He said they had intimidated lawmakers and created the upheaval that forced him to leave shortly after signing the agreement, brokered by three European foreign ministers, that had been intended as a peaceful road map for ending the crisis.
“The people of Crimea don’t want to submit and they will not submit,” he said.
Putin’s strategy remains unclear. On Friday, the Kremlin announced that he had told his ministers to continue contacts with their counterparts in Ukraine regarding trade and economic ties and would work with the International Monetary Fund and other countries to organize economic aid. He also pledged to respond to appeals from Crimea for humanitarian aid. But Putin has yet to make public remarks about the crisis in Ukraine since Yanukovych fled Kiev hours after the agreement brokered by the Europeans, though other officials have echoed Yanukovych’s remarks that the transition was illegal.
Yanukovych said he was surprised, “knowing the character of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin,” that Russia’s leader had so far maintained a studied silence on the events, referring to him formally and respectfully by his full name and patronymic.
“I believe that Russia must and is obliged to act,” he said.
He did not say how, though. When pressed again later, he added, “It would be inappropriate for me at this point for me to say what Russia should do,” he said. “Russia should not remain indifferent and do nothing.”
Yanukovych’s appearance in Rostov-on-Don, a city a couple of hour’s drive from his political stronghold in eastern Ukraine, added to the surreal quality of his fall from power. He insisted that he had not “fled” Kiev but left for a planned meeting with party activists in Kharkiv, a city in eastern Ukraine. And yet he claimed that his convoy had come under fire as he left Kiev.
From Kharkiv, he traveled to Donetsk and then tried to travel to Lugansk, only to be warned by Ukraine’s air force that his entourage risked crossing Russia’s border. By his account, he then drove overland to Crimea — at which point he became vague. He declined, when asked directly, to say how and when he had arrived in Russia.
“I got into Russia thanks to patriotic officers,” he said. “That’s what I would say. They did what they had to do.”
Unconfirmed reports by Russian news agencies said he had arrived in Moscow several days ago, but he did not address those. He said he had spoken with Putin by telephone after arriving on Russian soil but had not met him in person.
Tellingly, he held his news conference, organized by Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency, not in Moscow nor in a government building here but in the Vertol Expo center, a new shopping mall, hotel and convention center a fair distance from the city’s center. Inside and outside were exhibitions of tractors and other farm equipment. It was not clear when he might return to Ukraine to assert his claim to the presidency, even as he said he would not seek to run again when new elections are held.
Speaking to scores of reporters for more than an hour, he faced pointed questions that underscored how improbable his return seemed. When asked why he was in Rostov and not in Ukraine, he replied that he had sought “temporary shelter” from a close friend in the city because of the danger in Ukraine. Another journalist asked about his lavish residence in Mezhigorye, which protesters and activists descended upon after his flight, gawking at the evidence of personal indulgence and political intrigue, including documents suggesting corruption and lists of enemies.
Yanukovych did not directly address the zoo, the greenhouses, golf course, or the wooden ship that served as a private restaurant, except to say that there were other owners of parts of the estate whose lawyers would soon be in touch with officials in Kiev to reclaim their properties. He did not name the other owners.
“I don’t own anything, and I’ve never had accounts abroad,” he said. “I’m a public person. Everything I have, everything, was declared.”
At the estate, several protesters added to his indignity by watching his remarks on one of his own big-screen televisions, sitting on plush leather sofas in one of the mansions. They scoffed at his claims and heckled the screen when he protested that he had lived in one modest structure.
In Rostov-on-Don, Andrei Kolesnikov, a prominent journalist from the Russian newspaper Kommersant, asked Yanukovych if he was ashamed of anything that he had done.
“I can tell you, I am ashamed,” Yanukovych replied. “What’s more, I would like to apologize,” he went on, mentioning veterans in particular, “for the fact that I did not have enough strength to achieve stability and let this lawlessness occur.”