Russian President Vladimir Putin has stated that he was ready to put his country's nuclear forces on alert to secure the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine last year.
Putin made the comments in a pre-recorded documentary broadcast on Russian state television to mark the one-year anniversary of Moscow's takeover of the Black Sea peninsula. The film featured an interview in which Putin admits "we were ready to do this" when asked about his willingness to ready Russia's nuclear arsenal.
"Russian people live there," Putin said of his policy toward the Crimea after the fall of Ukraine's former pro-Moscow leader, Viktor Yanukovych. "They were in danger. We cannot abandon them."
The documentary aired as rumors swirled around the Russian leader's 10-day absence from public life. Putin resurfaced Monday, looking healthy as he met with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atanbayev in St. Petersburg's ornate Konstantin Palace. Atanbayev told reporters that the Russian leader was in good shape.
Putin's comments in the documentary highlight the extent to which alarm spread in Russia in the weeks following Yanukovych's ouster, which came after months of street protests that turned increasingly violent. The former Ukrainian leader fled Kiev, eventually resurfacing in Russia.
Meanwhile, Russian forces took control of Ukrainian military facilities on the peninsula and a referendum on secession was hastily called. The referendum, which was widely denounced in the West as illegitimate, reportedly brought overwhelming support for secession. The Russian annexation was completed on March 19 of last year.
Putin said his plans for a Crimean operation started after Yanukovych fled.
"We never thought about severing Crimea from Ukraine until the moment that these events began, the government overthrow," he said, repeating Russia's contention that Yanukovych was the victim of a coup.
He said he called for a "closed opinion poll" of sentiments among Crimeans about whether to remain in Ukraine. He didn't give details as to how this survey was conducted, but said "it became clear that 75 percent of the general population desired to join Russia."
Russia initially denied that the unmarked forces who took control in Crimea were Russian, but Putin later admitted they were. In the Sunday documentary, he said he ordered the defense ministry to deploy military intelligence special forces, marines and paratroopers "under the cover of strengthening the protection of our military facilities."
Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based in Crimea; it retained the bases after the collapse of the Soviet Union under an agreement with Ukraine.
Putin claimed in the documentary that the number of Russian forces in Crimea never exceeded the 20,000 authorized under the agreement on basing the Black Sea Fleet there.
Putin also said Russian forces helped Yanukovych escape to Russia.
After fleeing the capital Kiev, Yanukovych made one appearance in Kharkov, then disappeared for several days. Reports at the time said he and his security entourage went on a desperate journey through the eastern parts of the country and down to Crimea, looking for safety. Putin's retelling appeared to confirm those reports.
He said Russian security forces had tried to keep contact with Yanukovych as he moved through Ukraine and eventually "we brought him to Russian territory."