ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — Defensive and at times tearful, Ukraine's ousted president conceded Wednesday that he made a mistake when he invited Russian troops into Crimea and vowed to try to negotiate with Vladimir Putin to get the coveted Black Sea peninsula back.
"Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy," Viktor Yanukovych told The Associated Press in his first interview since fleeing to Russia in February, following monthslong protests focused on corruption and his decision to seek closer ties to Russia instead of the European Union.
Putin said last month that Yanukovych had asked Russia to send its troops to Crimea to protect its people — a request seen as treason by many Ukrainians. Russian troops quickly overran Crimea, which has an ethnic Russian majority.
"I was wrong," Yanukovych told the AP and Russia's state NTV television, speaking in Russian. "I acted on my emotions."
Yanukovych insisted that Russia's takeover of Crimea wouldn't have happened if he had stayed in power. He also denied responsibility for the sniper deaths of about 80 protesters in Kiev in February, for which he has been charged by Ukraine's interim government.
The 63-year-old Yanukovych has rarely been seen, even as he has insisted he is still the country's true leader. Putin has been openly dismissive of Yanukovych, but has also described him as the legitimate leader and his ouster as illegal.
Yanukovych said he has spoken with Putin only twice by phone and once in person since he arrived in Russia, describing their talks as "difficult." He said he hopes to have more meetings with the Russian leader to negotiate Crimea's return to Ukraine.
"We must search for ways ... so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible ... but be part of Ukraine," he said.
Russia annexed Crimea last month following a hastily called referendum held two weeks after Russian troops took control of the region. Ukraine and the West have rejected the vote and the annexation as illegal.
Yanukovych's comments appeared to represent an attempt to shore up at least some support in his homeland, where even his backers have deserted him.
Echoing the Kremlin's position, Yanukovych said the Crimean referendum, in which residents overwhelmingly voted to join Russia, was a response to threats posed by radical nationalists in Ukraine.
However, he did not answer several questions about whether he would support a move by Russia, which has deployed tens of thousands of troops near the Ukrainian border, to move into other areas of the country, also on the pretext of protecting ethnic Russians.
Yanukovych echoed the key Kremlin demand for settling the Ukrainian crisis, pushing for a referendum that could turn Ukraine into a loosely knit federation. He said such a vote should be followed by constitutional reform, and only after that should Ukraine have a national election.
The interim government in Kiev has scheduled a presidential election for May 25.
Yanukovych has now lost the Ukrainian presidency twice in the past decade. In 2004, his presidential win was thrown out after the Orange Revolution protests caused that fraudulent election to be annulled.
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