ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia (AP) — Ukraine's ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, said Wednesday that he was "wrong" to invite Russian troops into Crimea, and vowed to try to persuade Russia to return the Black Sea peninsula.
In his first interview since fleeing to Russia in February, Yanukovych told The Associated Press and Russia's state NTV television that he still hopes to negotiate with Russian President Vladimir Putin to get back the coveted region.
Russia annexed Crimea last month following a hastily called referendum held after Russian troops took control of the region. Ukraine and the West have rejected the move as illegal.
"Crimea is a tragedy, a major tragedy," Yanukovych told The AP, insisting that Russia's takeover of Crimea wouldn't have happened if he had stayed in power. He fled Ukraine after three months of anti-government protests against his rule.
The 63-year-old said he has personally met with Putin since he arrived and hopes to have more meetings with the Russian leader to negotiate Crimea's return.
"We must set such a task and search for ways to return to Crimea on any conditions, so that Crimea may have the maximum degree of independence possible ... but be part of Ukraine," he said.
Yanukovych said he and Putin had a "calm" but "difficult" conversation.
He said the Crimean referendum that was held just two weeks after Russian troops overran the peninsula — in which residents overwhelmingly voted to join Russia — was a response to threats posed by radical nationalists in Ukraine.
Yanukovych had pushed for local referendums that would allow parts of Ukraine to determine their own local government structures. He argued that should have been followed by a constitutional reform, and only after that should Ukraine have a national election.
The interim government in Kiev that took power after Yanukovych, meanwhile, has scheduled a presidential and some mayoral elections for May 25.
Asked about his opulent country residence outside of Kiev — a complex that shocked crowds of Ukrainians with its extravagant display of wealth amid the country's financial ruin — Yanukovych denied any allegations of corruption. He spoke with pride about his collection of dozens of old-time cars, but said he hadn't seen or used the golden loaf of bread found in his residence that has attracted much attention and sarcasm.
He also insisted that he gave no advantages or special privileges to his dentist-turned-billionaire son, who was said to have angered other Ukrainian tycoons by taking over some of the country's most profitable assets.
Yanukovych denied that he had given orders to shoot protesters in Ukraine's capital, where about 80 people were shot dead by snipers at anti-government protests in February. The government now in power has charged Yanukovych in connection with those deaths.
Yanukovych said he was criticized by his entourage for taking too soft an attitude toward the protesters, but insisted that he was reluctant to use force.
The long-time politician said he hopes to return to Ukraine someday, but didn't offer any details on how he could reclaim power.
While Putin has made it clear that Yanukovych has no political future, the Russian president has also insisted that Yanukovych's ouster was illegal and says he still remains Ukraine's only legitimate president.