RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service, Associated Press
ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — President Vladimir Putin accused the West on Saturday of ignoring Russia's interests in Ukraine, in particular by leaving open the possibility that Ukraine could one day join NATO.
"Where is the guarantee that, after the forceful change of power, Ukraine will not tomorrow end up in NATO?" Putin told senior representatives of major international news agencies, including The Associated Press.
"We hear only one answer, as if on a record: Every nation has a right to determine on its own the security system in which it wants to live, and that doesn't concern you," he said.
Weighing into the topic of Ukraine one day before it holds a presidential election that the West hopes will be a step toward resolving the crisis, Putin accused Western politicians of dallying with a distant country and not taking into account how important Ukraine is to Russia's security and economic interests.
Pro-Russia armed separatists in the east of Ukraine have threatened to block the presidential vote, which was called after the Russia-leaning president fled in February following months of street protests.
Russia has serious concerns that the new Western-leaning government in Kiev could take Ukraine, a former Soviet republic, into the U.S.-dominated military alliance. When Russia annexed Crimea in March, Putin said the decision was driven in part by the need to prevent NATO ships from ever being based on the Black Sea peninsula.
Putin said that he didn't believe a new Cold War had begun with the United States over Ukraine, but asserted that Russia had no intention of playing second fiddle to the West in global affairs.
"If the main bonus Russia gets is to sit in the room and listen to what other people are saying, then that is not a role Russia can agree to," Putin said. "We always take into account the interests of our partners ... but there are some lines that cannot be crossed, and Ukraine and Crimea were that line."
Putin on Friday had cheered investors at Russia's annual international economic forum by promising to respect the result of Sunday's election and work with Ukraine's new leader.
During nearly three hours of questions and answers with the news agency representatives, the first part of which was televised, Putin nevertheless was adamant that the Ukraine crisis stemmed from a "coup d'etat" that he said was orchestrated by the West. He also said that the voting was not in keeping with Kiev's current constitution.
However, he hinted that after the election there could be a new opportunity for talks between the authorities in Kiev and the pro-Russian separatists who have seized government buildings and entire cities in the eastern part of Ukraine, where the population is predominantly Russian-speaking.
"We need direct dialogue between the powers in Kiev and the people in the east," Putin said. "If they want to preserve the unity of the country they have to open up to a dialogue, and not just among themselves. They have to show them (those in the east) prospects for a future within a Ukrainian government and that their rights will be guaranteed." So far there is little of that, he said, but "I hope that this will happen nonetheless after the elections."
Putin also said he has already suggested a mediator between the Kiev government and those fighting for independence in the east: Viktor Medvedchuk, a onetime administrative chief to former Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma considered close to Russia.
Medvedchuk supported the ousted Ukrainian government and is among those hit by U.S. sanctions over the Russian seizure of Crimea. He would likely be unacceptable to the new Kiev leadership.
Putin was asked by Britain's Press Association about Prince Charles' reported comment in a private conversation during a visit to Canada comparing the annexation of Crimea to Adolf Hitler's 1939 invasion of Poland. He said the comparison was "unacceptable" and "not royal behavior."
"I think he understands that himself," Putin said.
Late Saturday, the Kremlin said Putin held a three-way telephone conversation with the leaders of Germany and France in which they all expressed their desire to see a peaceful election in Ukraine.
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