Vladimir Putin has said Russia was so fearful of attack at the height of the Ukraine crisis that it was preparing to arm its nuclear weapons, in extraordinary claims aired on state TV on Sunday night.
Amid ongoing Russian media speculation that the President was watching the Crimea documentary from his sickbed, Mr Putin’s full interview with Rossiya One provided new insight into his country’s involvement in the annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
In the documentary, which marks a year since the referendum that saw Russia take control of Crimea, Mr Putin described the Ukrainian revolution to oust Viktor Yanukovych in February 2014 as an armed coup “masterminded by our American friends”.
He said Washington tried to “trick” the world into thinking the regime change was “supported mostly by the Europeans”, according to a translation of the interview on Russia Today.
But he instead accused the US of orchestrating the crisis, saying: “They helped training the nationalists, their armed groups, in Western Ukraine, in Poland and to some extent in Lithuania. They facilitated the armed coup.”
Mr Putin expanded on comments aired ahead of the full documentary that well-armed forces known as the “little green men” who helped bring about the referendum in Crimea were indeed Russian soldiers.
He also revealed that as part of the operation to take control of the peninsula, Russia deployed K-300P Bastion coastal defence missile “in a way that made them seen clearly from space” as a military deterrent to the perceived threat of attack from the West.
And on Russia’s willingness to arm nuclear weapons if necessary, Mr Putin said: “We were ready to do this ... (Crimea) is our historical territory. Russian people live there. They were in danger. We cannot abandon them.”
The documentary comes as speculation continues to grow about Mr Putin's 10-day absence from public view. After a number of cancelled meetings in the past week, the opposition TV station Dozhd reportedly cited anonymous sources on Sunday saying the leader was recuperating from the flu in one of his country manors outside Moscow.
On Monday, he is scheduled to take part in a meeting with the president of Kyrgyzstan, in what would be his first public appearance before the news media since 5 March.
Other admissions made by Mr Putin in the documentary, which was entitled “Crimea: The Road Back Home”, were that he ordered the defence ministry to deploy elite units to Crimea “under the cover of strengthening the protection of our military facilities”.
But despite admitting this subterfuge, Mr Putin said Russian troop numbers in the peninsula never exceeded the 20,000 allowed under the terms of basing its Black Sea fleet there.
The comments were reported on the state broadcaster’s website, after the documentary aired in the Russian Far East but before it was due to go out in Moscow.
Mr Putin also confirmed that Russian forces oversaw the movement of the ousted president Yanukovych from Kiev to Russia, and suggested that those who benefited from the “armed coup” had plotted to assassinate him.
“I invited the heads of our special services, the Defense Ministry and ordered them to protect the life of the Ukrainian president,” he said. “Otherwise he would have been killed.”
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