Nicaragua's Ortega defends Russia's stance over Ukraine

A man watches a televised speech of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, in Managua

By Ismael Lopez

MANAGUA (Reuters) - Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega became one of the first world leaders to back Russia's stance over Ukraine on Monday, saying President Vladimir Putin was right to recognise two regions controlled by Moscow-backed separatists as independent.

The former Marxist guerrilla, who has led Nicaragua since 2007 after having first come to power in 1979, defended Putin's move to recognize the independence of Donetsk and Luhansk during a speech in Managua.

"I am sure that if they do a referendum like the one carried out in Crimea, people will vote to annex the territories to Russia," said Ortega, a long-time opponent of U.S. influence in Central America.

Ortega also said Ukraine's attempt to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) represented a threat to Russia.

“If Ukraine gets into NATO they will be saying to Russia let's go to war, and that explains why Russia is acting like this. Russia is simply defending itself."

Last week, Russia's Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov visited Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba, key Russian allies in Latin America, and said Russia would deepen bilateral ties with all three countries.

The United States said Nicaragua's last election, in November, was rigged in Ortega's favour, and has imposed sanctions on Nicaraguan officials. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Brian Nichols described Ortega's government as being on the road to expulsion from the Organization of American States.

(Reporting by Ismael Lopez; Writing by Valentine Hilaire; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore)