In his first interview with Western media, Ukraine's former President Viktor Yanukovich told the BBC that Crimea splitting from Ukraine was a tragedy, but the only way to avoid war. Maidan violence contributed to the Crimean referendum, he said.
The interview conducted by BBC Newsnight's Gabriel Gatehouse was published on Monday on the broadcaster’s UK and Russian websites. The interview took months to prepare, Gatehouse says in an accompanying report – but not all of the ex-president's replies made it into the final English version.
Yanukovich said that the Crimean referendum of March 2014, which saw overwhelming support for splitting from Ukraine, was a choice
between war and peace.
“What is most important, the people of Crimea, 90 percent of Crimea's population, supported breaking away from Ukraine,” the ex-president told the interviewer. “I believe it is very bad. But it is the consequence of Maidan, it is the consequence of the radical nationalistic movement that scared the traditionally pro-Russian Crimean population.”
This comment is only available in the Russian version of the article and the full un-subtitled video of the interview, published at the BBC Russian website.
When the interviewer pressed him to say whether what happened in Crimea was a “tragedy” or a “triumph of justice,” Yanukovich said it was a tragedy, but from the people's perspective the choice was reasonable. He also said to attempt to get Crimea back with force was not an option for Kiev.
“What happened there was very bad. And we need, today, to find a way out of this situation ... Now there is war. They talk about getting Crimea back. How? Through war? Do we need another war?”
If Crimea had stayed within Ukraine, Yanukovich believes, “we would most likely see in Crimea the same thing we are seeing now in Donbass,” referring to the conflict in eastern Ukraine, where two self-proclaimed republics have been battling Kiev's army for over a year.
Another comment that only made it into the Russian version, was Yanukovich's attitude to the war in eastern Ukraine: “I believe everything that is going on in Donbass is genocide – genocide of the Donbass population.”
There was of course a response that only appeared in the English version of the article, and was dropped from the Russian one. It was Yanukovich's comment about ostriches that were allegedly found in the territory of his residence. “I supported the ostriches what's wrong with that?” Yanukovich told Gatehouse.
The ostrich question was part of the discussion about allegations of corruption leveled at Yanukovich. The rest of it appears in both the interview's English and Russian versions. The ex-president rebukes accusations against him as “political technology” and spin, saying the current authorities have provided no proof to back their claims.
Another key point of the interview was Yanukovich's alleged complicity in the mass killing of protesters during the winter 2014 Kiev uprising against him. The former president said he never gave an order to shoot protesters, but admitted he doesn’t have all the facts about the incident.
“I am against bloodshed, I have said that all the time. But law enforcement officers did their duty in accordance with the existing laws, and they had the right to use weapons in situations outlined by the laws. In which cases they used or did not use weapons – I do not have the facts.”
The current Kiev authorities and their Western backers accuse Yanukovich of ordering riot police to use lethal force against protesters in February 2014, during the violent uprising which eventually toppled his presidency and forced him to flee to Russia. Some 106 people died in the clashes, including dozens killed by unidentified snipers.