ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia — Ukraine’s humiliated fugitive president appeared at a shopping center here Friday to declare himself the country’s lawful leader, calling on President Vladimir Putin to act but vowing to oppose military intervention by Russia or anyone else. He spoke hours after mysterious Russian-speaking gunmen took up positions around two airports in Crimea, prompting Ukraine’s new leaders to announce that an intervention had already begun.
After weeks of popular protests, warlike violence, fear, grief and jubilation, Ukraine’s political crisis descended Friday into an absurd, if ominous, swirl of confusion that heightened the crisis facing a country on the brink of economic and political collapse.
Even as frantic reports circulated that Russia had intervened decisively in Crimea, Putin held a series of telephone conversations with European leaders in which he agreed, according to a British account of his conversation with Prime Minister David Cameron, to Ukraine’s holding new presidential elections in May, suggesting that the Kremlin was resigned to a new leadership there to replace the ousted, pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych.
“I think any military action is unacceptable,” Yanukovych said at a news conference here, appearing in public for the first time in a week, since he signed an agreement with Ukraine’s opposition leaders ending months of protests that took a violent and deadly turn last week in Kiev, killing dozens. “I have no intention to ask for military support. I think Ukraine should remain one indivisible country.”
Yanukovych vowed to return to power, however improbable that now seems, given the erosion of his political support, even among Russia’s leadership and his former allies in Ukraine, including his long-serving press secretary who gave an unflattering interview published Friday. Sergei Tigipko, a former deputy prime minister and still influential member of parliament, said that he was not interested in what Yanukovych had to say. Asked if Yanukovych was still the legitimate president, Tigipko answered tersely: “No.”
Yanukovych, sharply dressed in a suit, denounced the new interim leaders in Ukraine’s capital as fascists whose actions had been abetted by the West, and said the legal moves they had taken since he fled Kiev a week ago had no standing. Among those, he said, was the resolution stripping him of his authority because he had effectively abandoned his presidency.
“Nobody deposed me,” he said, speaking in Russian. “I had to leave Ukraine because there was a direct and imminent threat to my life.” He called for a restoration of the government that he once led.
He said that the warlike events in Crimea — including the seizure of the region’s capital Thursday and reports that the airspace had been closed — were a “natural reaction” to what he called a “gangster coup” in Kiev by violent nationalists. He said they had intimidated lawmakers and created the upheaval that forced him to leave shortly after signing the agreement, brokered by three European foreign ministers, that had been intended as a peaceful road map for ending the crisis.
“The people of Crimea don’t want to submit and they will not submit,” he said.