As Kiev continues to amass its forces in eastern Ukraine despite the ceasefire and use radical nationalist groups as armed battalions, Moscow is concerned about possible ethnic cleansing there, Russian President Vladimir Putin told ARD in an interview.
Speaking with Hubert Seipel of the German channel ARD ahead of the G20 summit, Putin warned of catastrophic consequences for Ukraine if the Kiev government continues to nurture radical nationalism and Russophobia, including in the ranks of its military and National Guard units that are still being sent as reinforcements to the country’s troubled east.
“Frankly speaking, we are very concerned about any possible ethnic cleansings and Ukraine ending up as a neo-Nazi state. What are we supposed to think if people are bearing swastikas on their sleeves? Or what about the SS emblems that we see on the helmets of some military units now fighting in eastern Ukraine? If it is a civilized state, where are the authorities looking? At least they could get rid of this uniform, they could make the nationalists remove these emblems,” Putin said.
Pointing at some difficulties in implementing the Minsk agreements aimed at ensuring the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine holds, Putin said the local militias have one clear reason not to leave the cities they occupy, which is the fear of reprisals. Moscow has been urging both sides of the conflict to adhere to the agreements.
“Indeed, self-defense fighters, for example, were supposed to leave some of the towns they had surrounded, are yet they haven’t left. Do you know why not? I will tell you plainly, this is no secret: because the people fighting against the Ukrainian army say, 'These are our villages, we come from there. Our families and our loved ones live there. If we leave, nationalist battalions will come and kill everyone. We will not leave, you can kill us yourselves.'”
“That is why we have fears that it may all end up this way. If it happens it would be a catastrophe for Ukraine and Ukrainian people,” Putin stressed.
The Russian leader dismissed the idea that only Russia has the key to solve the Ukraine crisis, saying that it sounds as if someone is trying to pass responsibility for the conflict to Moscow.
“You know, when someone tells us that we have some special opportunities to solve this or that crisis it always troubles and alarms me...I always begin to suspect that there is an intention to pass on the responsibility to us and to make us pay for something. We do not want that. Ukraine is an independent, free and sovereign state,” Putin said.
However, the president hinted at the possibility that Western countries could actually make a difference in the Ukrainian situation, and persuade the West-leaning government in Kiev to follow a path of national dialogue instead of sending tanks to rebel territories.
“There is just one thing that I always pay attention to. We are told again and again: pro-Russian separatists must do this and this, you must influence them in this way, you must act in that way. I have always asked them: 'What have you done to influence your clients in Kiev? What have you done? Or do you only support Russophobic sentiments?'” Putin said.
He stressed that supporting Russophobia in Ukraine could result in “real catastrophe” and urged to seek a joint solution to the crisis in order to “bring the positions of the parties closer together.”
Russia will not let Kiev simply send armed forces to eastern Ukraine and “annihilate” its opponents there, Putin stressed, answering a question of a German journalist.
“The issue is that we can’t have a one-sided view of the problem. Today there is fighting in eastern Ukraine. The Ukrainian central authorities have sent the armed forces there and they even use ballistic missiles. Does anybody speak about it? Not a single word. And what does it mean? What does it tell us? This points to the fact, that you want the Ukrainian central authorities to annihilate everyone there, all of their political foes and opponents. Is that what you want? We certainly don’t. And we won't let it happen.”
Putin said that those people who consider their cause righteous – like the anti-government fighters in eastern Ukraine – “will always get weapons” in the modern world, including armored vehicles and artillery systems.
Western politicians and media have been accusing Russia of sending weapons to the rebels – which Moscow denies – but have provided no hard evidence of the claim. Initially, the self-defense forces of Donbass armed themselves with weapons and vehicles seized at military depots in the region, but they also managed to capture some hardware from the Ukrainian troops. The Ukrainian army, often severely underequipped, recently started receiving military aid from several Western countries.
Putin stressed that the Minsk treaties securing the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine only became possible because Russia managed to convince anti-government fighters to sit down at the negotiation table with Kiev representatives.
“The Minsk agreements arose only because Russia became actively involved in this effort; we worked with the Donbass militias, that is the fighters from southeast Ukraine, and we convinced them that they should settle for certain agreements. If we had not done that, it would simply not have happened,” the president said.
There are still problems with the implementation of these agreements, Putin added, saying that both sides are unwilling to follow some of the points. Both Kiev and the self-defense forces have failed to leave some of the towns they were supposed to leave. When confronted about this fact, however, the militia told Moscow that they are not leaving due to fear of genocide or the killing of their families, as many fighters come from the same areas being occupied.
Allegations of widespread abuses – including abductions, unlawful detention, ill-treatment, theft, extortion, and possible mass executions at the hands of pro-Kiev forces – have been reported by several rights groups, including Amnesty International.
“When they say things like that, you know, there is not much that can be said in response,” Putin said.
“But if the central Ukrainian authorities choose not just to determine the demarcation line, which is very important today in order to stop the shelling and killing, but if they want to preserve the territorial integrity of their country, each particular village or town are not significant; what is important is to immediately stop the bloodshed and shelling and to create conditions for starting a political dialogue. That is what is important. If it this is not done, there will be no political dialogue,” Putin stressed.
Instead, however, Kiev seems to have recently amassed new forces around the rebel-held territories. Russian deputy UN ambassador Aleksandr Pankin told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that “throughout the ceasefire period a concentration of Ukrainian troops was observed almost along the entire front line,” and there was no withdrawal of heavy weapons in violation of the Minsk agreements.
“Apparently, Kiev’s fear of the self-defense forces is so great that it tries to justify their own failures and massive transfer of personnel and equipment to the front lines by loudly claiming alleged Russian weapons and army,” Pankin said, referring to the most recent allegations of “Russian tanks in Ukraine.” NATO last week said it saw several columns of Russian hardware entering Ukraine, but added that it does not have a “good picture” supporting the claims.