Maxim Shemetov/Reuters

Yanukovich hopes Russia returns Crimea to Ukraine

Ousted Ukrainian leader calls annexation a 'tragedy'; hopes to persuade Russian President Putin to return penninsula

Ukraine's ousted president Viktor Yanukovich on Wednesday called Russia's annexation of Crimea tragic and said he hoped the Black Sea peninsula could come back under Ukraine's control someday.

"Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy," Yanukovich said during an interview with The Associated Press and Russia's NTV television, insisting that Russia's takeover of Crimea wouldn't have happened if he had stayed in power.

Yanukovich said he has personally met with Russian President Vladimir Putin since the referendum and hopes to have more meetings with the Russian leader to negotiate Crimea's return, saying that the two had a "calm" but "difficult" situation.

"We must set such a task and search for ways to return to Crimea on any conditions, so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible ... but be part of Ukraine," he said.

Yanukovich made the comments in his first interview since fleeing Ukraine in February. His ouster came after months of massive protests, sparked after he spurned a far-reaching trade deal with the European Union and accepted a $15 billion Russian bailout. 

Ukraine's former president also called the Crimean referendum a response to threats posed by radical nationalists in Ukraine. The vote was held two weeks after Russian troops overran the peninsula, and it resulted in residents overwhelmingly voting to join Russia. Ukraine and the West have rejected the referendum as illegal.

Meanwhile, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed concern to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Wednesday about NATO's decision to suspend cooperation with Moscow as a result of the annexation. 

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev also said Wednesday that economic relations between Russia, Europe and the U.S. should not be made to suffer because of "political ambitions or prejudices."

NATO foreign ministers on Tuesday suspended all practical cooperation with Russia in protest at its annexation of Crimea.

Also on Wednesday, NATO's top military commander, U.S. Air Force General Philip Breedlove, said that Russia had massed all the forces it needed on Ukraine's border if it were to carry out an "incursion" into the country. He added that Russia could do so in three to five days. 

Wire services

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