Despite being missing for ten days, Vladimir Putin still managed to grab headlines yesterday (15 March), after an interview recorded before his disappearance, in which the Russian president said he was ready to put nuclear forces on alert to ensure the annexation of Crimea, was broadcast.
Putin has not been seen in public or on live television since 5 March, prompting a wave of savage mockery across the internet, despite official insistence that it was business as usual in the Kremlin.
Independent news broadcaster Dozhd said the Kremlin had declined to comment on its report that Putin was not in Moscow but in Novgorod province, at his Lake Valdai residence, for the last several days. An Austrian newspaper reported that Putin was suffering from back problems, and that a Viennese orthopaedic expert had travelled to Russia to treat him.
A film, shown across Russia ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea on 18 March and shot before Putin’s disappearance, documented the seizure of the peninsula and provided details of Yanukovich’s last hours in Ukraine before he fled to Rostov-on-Don, in southern Russia.
In the film, Putin said that Russia had saved the life of Ukraine’s former pro-Moscow president, Viktor Yanukovich. He said Yanukovich was in danger after “revolutionaries” seized power following weeks of violent street protests in Kyiv last year.
“For us it became clear and we received information that there were plans not only for his capture, but, preferably for those who carried out the coup, but also for his physical elimination. As one famous historical figure said: ‘No person, no problem’,” Putin said.
Protests over Yanukovich’s decision to back away from a trade agreement with the European Union in favour of closer ties with Moscow forced him from power in February last year. Yanukovich’s overthrow ultimately prompted Russia to seize and annex the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea.
“Of course it wasn’t immediately understandable [what the reaction would be to Crimea’s annexation]. Therefore, in the first stages, I had to orient our armed forces. Not just orient, but give direct orders,” he said.
When asked if he had been ready to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, he said, “We were ready to do it.”
Putin said Yanukovich had called on 21 February last year to lay out plans to leave the capital, where violent street protests had been raging for weeks.
“I told him my point of view that, in such a situation, it’s best not to leave the capital,” said Putin.
From Kyiv, Yanukovich travelled to Kharkiv, then on to Donetsk, where he called Putin to ask for help.
Putin suggested meeting him personally in Rostov-on-Don, but Yanukovich’s plane was not given permission to leave. He then travelled to Crimea. From there he was spirited to Russia.