MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin said Monday that Russia took over Crimea because it had to protect Crimea's mostly ethnic-Russian population after pro-Western Ukrainian nationalists came to power in Ukraine.
In the latest preview of an upcoming documentary called "Homeward bound" on state-run Rossiya-1 television, Putin portrayed Russia's military takeover and annexation of the Ukrainian province as a rescue mission.
"We were forced to start working on returning Crimea to Russia because we could not abandon this territory and the people who live there to the mercy of fate, to be crushed by nationalists, " Putin said.
Putin pinned the blame for what Moscow calls a coup in Kiev on nationalists supported by Western countries "thousands of kilometers away."
"It wasn't us who committed a coup d'etat, it was done by nationalists and people with extreme views, they were given support," Putin said.
"But we are here, this is our land," he said.
Shortly after the February 2014 overthrow of Ukraine's Russian-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in Kiev, Russian soldiers suddenly fanned across Crimea, which has deep ethnic-Russian roots and where there was less support for the pro-Western revolution in the capital.
A subsequent referendum staged after Ukrainian authorities had already been pushed out gave overwhelming backing to making the Black Sea peninsula part of Russia.
The military operation was initially kept secret, despite the increasingly obvious actions of unmarked Russian forces. Later, the Kremlin conceded that it had been behind the power grab.
'Obliged to act'
In the upcoming documentary, Putin said his first step was to order an opinion poll on the population's intentions. It found 75 percent support for joining Russia, he said, insisting that his decision to annex the territory only came later in response to the upheaval in Kiev.
"It became obvious to me that if we come close to this (happening), then the level, the number of those who would like this historic event to take place will be much higher," the president said.
Putin claimed that if the people of Crimea had said they wanted greater autonomy "but within Ukraine," then he would have "let that happen."
"The final aim was not to seize Crimea, or some kind of annexation. The final aim was to give people the opportunity to express their opinion on how they want to live further," Putin insisted, referring to the disputed referendum which was condemned by Western capitals as forced upon the population.
"We know the results of the referendum and we acted as we were obliged to act," Putin said.
In other excerpts from the documentary shown on Sunday, Putin revealed the moment he says he gave the secret order for Russia's annexation of Crimea. He also described how Russian troops were ready to fight to get Yanukovych to safety.
He recounted an all-night meeting with security services chiefs.
"We ended at about seven in the morning," Putin said. "When we were parting, I said to my colleagues: we must start working on returning Crimea to Russia."
"I set certain tasks: I said what we should do and how. But I straight away stressed that we would do this only if we are absolutely convinced that the people who live in Crimea themselves want this."
Putin also claimed that Russia's military was ready to fight its way into the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk to get Yanukovych, a hugely corrupt but loyal figure who favored keeping Ukraine in Russia's sphere of influence.
"He would have been killed," Putin said. "We got ready to get him right out of Donetsk by land, by sea or by air."
Yanukovych later resurfaced in the southern Russian city of Rostov and has not been back to Ukraine.
More than 6,000 people have since been killed in fighting between Ukraine's government forces and heavily armed separatist militias based in Donetsk and backed — according to Western governments — by Russia, although Moscow denies this.
Rossiya-1 did not say when the full documentary, which includes dramatized reconstructions of key events including Yanukovych's flight, would be aired