Putin Says He Decided to Take Crimea Just Hours After Yanukovych's Ouster
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Russian President Vladimir Putin says he told senior security officials of his decision to take Crimea just hours after embattled Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych abandoned power.
In a trailer for a documentary to be aired on state television, Putin describes an emergency Kremlin meeting he said ended about 7 a.m. on February 23, 2014.
Putin said he ordered the military and security agencies "to save the Ukrainian president's life."
"As we were parting, I told all my colleagues: 'We will have to start work to return Crimea to Russia,'" Putin said in the trailer, shown on March 8.
Russia annexed Crimea in March 2014 after deploying troops to the region, engineering the takeover of its parliament, and staging a referendum denounced by Kyiv and the West as illegitimate.
After initial denials by the Kremlin, Putin eventually acknowledged on television that Russian troops were sent to the Black Sea peninsula, but he and other officials have continued to portray the will of the people of Crimea as the driving force behind what they call its "unification" with Russia.
Russian officials and media have also cast the annexation of Crimea as a necessary step to avert what they claim was the imminent threat of violence at the hands of the pro-Western forces that ousted Yanukovych in months of massive protests in Kyiv.
Kremlin critics dismiss that argument as absurd.
Yanukovych fled Kyiv on February 22, 2014, shortly after he and opponents signed a deal that called for the creation of a national unity government, a presidential election by December 2014, and a return to an earlier Ukrainian constitution that would have curtailed Yanukovych’s powers.
In the TV trailer, Putin said he had summoned security chiefs for the Kremlin meeting to save Yanukovych because "they would have simply destroyed him."
He said they hatched a plan to extract Yanukovych from Ukraine "by land, sea, and air."
The Russian servicemen who secured government buildings and confronted Ukrainian units in Crimea became known as "little green men" after their uniforms, which bore no insignia.
Putin signed laws that the Kremlin says make Crimea part of Russia on March 21, 2014, five days after the referendum in which authorities said some 97 percent of those who cast ballots voted in favor.
Kyiv and Western governments said the hastily organized vote was held at the barrel of a gun and rights activists say opponents of Russian rule, including many members of the large Muslim Tatar minority, have faced a campaign of reprisals and abuse.
Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev shifted Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954, when both were republics of the Soviet Union.
Putin has sought to justify the annexation by claiming that Crimea is "holy land" for Russia.
Despite initially trying to keep it secret, Putin has sometimes seemed to find it hard to contain his pride over the operation to make Crimea part of Russia, joking about little green men and decorating officers involved.
Journalist and author Anne Applebaum said on Twitter:
"Putin brags on TV about his clever plan to annex Crimea. So much for that spontaneous uprising..."
"Now waiting for Putin to start bragging about his clever plan to create an East Ukrainian separatist movement"
The annexation of Crimea was followed by a conflict between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists who have seized control over parts of two eastern provinces, Donetsk and Luhansk.
Fighting has eased following a European-brokered February 12 cease-fire deal in the conflict, which has killed more than 6,000 people since April, but Kyiv and Western governments fear the Kremlin wants to keep Ukraine riven and destabilized for decades to come.
With reporting by AP and RIA Novosti
Copyright (c) 2015. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036.