Vladimir Putin made his first public appearance in 11 days on Monday, following an interview that aired on Sunday night in which the Russian president revealed that he had considered using nuclear weapons in Ukraine.
“We were ready to do this,” the Independent quoted Putin as saying in a documentary that was produced by a state-run news outlet. Crimea “is our historical territory,” he adds. “Russian people live there. They were in danger. We cannot abandon them.”
During Ukraine’s revolt against the country’s Russian-backed President Viktor F. Yanukovych, Putin told Russian officials that they might need to prepare their nuclear arsenal for “the worst possible turn of events” – that is, if the West had intervened in Crimea’s referendum vote to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.
The startling nod to Russia’s nuclear power comes amid a politically uneasy time in Russia. For nearly two weeks, Putin disappeared from the public eye, prompting a host of rumors that the Russian leader was ill or engaged in a power struggle following the murder of a prominent Kremlin critic, Boris Nemtsov, late last month. Putin reemerged on Monday at an open-press meeting with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev in St. Petersburg, telling reporters rumors that he was unwell or losing control were “gossip,” state news agencies reported.
Russia is largely thought to have manipulated Crimea’s referendum vote to leave Ukraine and has since been aiding rebels in Eastern Ukraine in their fight against the pro-Western Ukrainian government, which took over in the wake of the revolution. Putin, however, rejects that narrative in the documentary, in which he blames the U.S. for the conflict.
Putin says the ousting of Yanukovych was “masterminded by our American friends,” and said the U.S. tried to “trick” others into seeing the regime change as widely approved by Europeans. The U.S. did support the ousting of the Russian-backed president last February, but has declined Ukrainian requests for further support.
Putin also ordered 40,000 troops to be put on full alert, the Wall Street Journal reported, a continuation of Russia’s snap readiness drills which have been previously criticized as threatening and provocative.