Russian President Vladimir Putin, in an interview broadcast Sunday to mark 15 years in power, said he has no regrets over Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Crimea as it overturned “a historical injustice.”
“I think we did the right thing and I don’t regret a thing,” Putin said of his decision to take back the Black Sea peninsula from Ukraine, during the interview in a state television documentary.
“When we defend our (interests), we go to the end,” he said.
Explaining the motivation behind Crimea’s takeover, Putin said it was righting a historic wrong after Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred the peninsula from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, then only a symbolic move since both were in the USSR.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea and subsequent charges that it is supporting pro-Moscow separatists in eastern Ukraine have plunged relations with the West to Cold War-era lows.
Putin, who served as president from 2000-2008 then spent four years as prime minister before resuming the top job in 2012, accused the United States of directly contacting and providing logistical support to North Caucasus separatist militants.
In the documentary “President,” on Rossiya 1 television, Putin cited intelligence from Russian special services that there “were simply direct contacts between fighters from the North Caucasus and representatives of US special forces in Azerbaijan.”
He said he told the US president of the day who told him: “I’ll kick their ass.” He did not name the president.
“But within 10 days, our — my subordinates, the FSB (security service) heads, received a letter from their colleagues in Washington saying: ‘We have had and will have relations with all the opposition forces in Russia and we consider we have the right to do this and we will do this in the future’,” Putin said.
– 86 percent approval –
As prime minister from 1999, Putin launched the second Chechen War, which did not officially end until 2009.
Putin, 62, said Western special services apparently supported the militants because they believed that any opponent of Russia should be treated as an ally.
“Some people, especially special forces of Western countries, thought that if someone is working to destabilise their main geopolitical opponent — which as we realise now has always been Russia in their minds — then it is generally to their benefit.
“It turned out that’s not the case,” Putin added.
After the second Chechen war, Moscow installed a pro-Kremlin regime in the republic.
Looking ahead Putin said he can “completely imagine” leaving the Kremlin for a more modest abode and does not consider himself a member of his country’s elite.
“If someone can return to an ordinary flat and live there instead of in palace interiors, I think he has not lost contact with the outside world,” Putin said in the interview filmed in a sumptuous room in the Kremlin.
“I can completely imagine life outside this position,” he said, adding that he instinctively understood the concerns of ordinary Russians.
While lambasted in the West, Putin is still very popular at home.
A survey by the independent polling agency Levada showed his approval ratings at a whopping 86 percent in April.
– ‘The biggest possible contribution’ –
Listing some of the downsides of life as a president, he said: “You can’t live as a normal person does. You can’t go to the cinema, you can’t go to the theatre on the spur of the moment, you can’t go and look round the shops.”
“But those are small losses compared to what fate and the public gives to people who are in my position: that is to make the biggest possible contribution, to do all that I can… for my country, for my people,” Putin said. “That compensates for everything.”
He insisted that Russia is not breaching international law in its role in Ukraine, despite Western sanctions, as Moscow denies international accusations that it is backing pro-Russian separatists with arms and troops in east Ukraine.
The Russian leader, named by Time magazine as the world’s most influential person, lambasted the sanctions imposed by the US and Europe as “nothing but another attempt to contain Russia’s development.”
“I’m deeply convinced we’re not breaking any rules of the game. That concerns our relations with Ukraine (and) the situation in Crimea,” Putin said, citing international law and the United Nations charter.