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Russia was prepared for nuclear standoff over Crimea: Putin

Russia was prepared for nuclear standoff over Crimea: Putin

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was ready to put his country's nuclear forces on alert when he annexed Ukraine's Crimean peninsula last year in case of intervention by the U.S. and its allies.

In a documentary about Russia's takeover of Crimea, which aired Sunday on state television, Putin was asked if the Kremlin had been prepared to place its nuclear forces on alert.

"We were ready to do that," Putin replied. The Russian leader said he warned the U.S. and Europe not to get involved, accusing them of engineering the ouster of Russian-backed Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. "That's why I think no one wanted to start a world conflict."

In the film, called "Crimea: the Road to the Motherland," broadcast by Rossiya-1, Putin said he sent military intelligence and elite navy marines to spearhead the disarmament of 20,000 Ukrainian troops in the territory. No date was given for the Putin interview. The film was made over eight months.

Russia's seizure of Crimea in March last year provoked the worst geo-political confrontation with the U.S. and Europe since the Cold War. Tensions have escalated during a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine that's killed more than 6,000 people over the past year. Despite a European-brokered cease- fire, the U.S. is considering arming Ukrainian forces.

Putin, 62, whose country has been hit by U.S. and European Union sanctions that have helped to drive the Russian economy toward recession, branded President Barack Obama's administration as "puppet-masters." He said the U.S. directed the months of mass protests that overthrew Yanukovych in February last year.

The Russian president said he decided to seize Crimea after a crisis all-night meeting with security chiefs from Feb. 22-23 to save the majority-ethnic Russian territory from the "nationalists" in Kiev who would have killed Yanukovych if Russia hadn't given him refuge. He said the annexation of Crimea wasn't planned before the overthrow of Yanukovych.

Putin said he gave an order to his presidential administration to prepare a secret poll in Crimea on possible annexation by Russia, which showed 75 percent support. On Feb. 27, armed men seized the parliament and regional government buildings in the Crimean capital, Simferopol. A March referendum branded illegal by Ukraine and the U.S. and EU approved joining Russia.

Crimea was conquered by Russian Empress Catherine the Great in the 18th century and became part of Ukraine only in 1954 -- a gift of then-Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.

Putin at first flatly denied sending troops to Crimea, saying that Russian military uniforms worn by masked, armed men dubbed the "little green men" who were active in seizing Ukrainian army bases could have been bought at any store. Last April, during a TV call-in show, he said that Russian servicemen had assisted local self-defense units.

Russia wasn't sure how the U.S. and EU would respond and ordered its armed forces to be ready for any outcome, said Putin. "I spoke to colleagues and I told them that this is our historic territory, Russian people live there, they are in danger and we can't abandon them. What do you want to fight for? You don't know? We know. And we're ready for that."

The Russian leader said a priority now is to build a $3.7 billion bridge over the Kerch Strait to provide a physical link with Russia. Crimea is suffering from transport blockages and high inflation because of Ukrainian efforts to isolate the territory.

Asked if he would do exactly the same thing again if the clock was wound back, Putin replied: "Of course! I would never have done it unless I believed that we had to act in that way."

Bloomberg News

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