WASHINGTON -- The first president of an independent Ukraine, who in 1994 sent Soviet nuclear weapons back to Russia in exchange for its pledge not to use force, said nobody believed at the time that an attack from Russia was even possible.
"There was no such prediction," former President Leonid Kravchuk told The Huffington Post in an interview from Kiev Wednesday. "No one could imagine that between Ukraine and Russia there could arise such relations, such bitter relations, when Russia can send its forces on the territory of Ukraine."
Kravchuk called on Russian President Vladimir Putin to respect the Budapest Memorandum, which Putin has said is now invalid because he considers the new government in Kiev invalid.
"Putin says because a new government was formed, and with this government, we can't respond to any agreements. I answer to Mr. Putin, the government formed was not new, just new leaders. The government remained as before," he said.
"If you follow the logic of Mr. Putin, then that means that Ukraine, as a new government, can now refuse all of its agreements with Russia," he added, noting that Ukraine could do away with the agreement holding the Russian Black Sea fleet in Crimea if it wanted to.
Kravchuk, 80, was elected as Ukraine's first president in 1991 after being head of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. He signed the Budapest Memorandum on Dec. 5, 1994 along with Russia, the United States and United Kingdom. Ukraine gave up what was then the third-largest stockpile of nuclear weapons in the world, inherited from the Soviet Union, in exchange for security assurances from Russia. Kravchuk lost a bid for reelection in 1994, losing the vote in the Russian-speaking East and South by large margins to Leonid Kuchma, revealing Ukraine's East-West divide.
Kravchuk has still been active in trying to mediate Ukraine's political crisis, giving a speech to parliament on Jan. 29 calling on all sides to come to an agreement. He got a standing ovation from the deputies.
Kravchuk lambasted Putin, but said that good relations of Russia were essential for Ukraine.
"My attitude to his assessments is highly negative. They are not truthful. They are based on imperialistic way of thinking and totalitarian assessments," he said. "And his other actions threaten not only Ukraine, but also Europe."
"We would like to go farther and have normal relations with Russia, to be partners, like countries who for a long time were together," he said, "We wish that Russians and all nationalities live in Ukraine and feel comfortable and for there to be harmony in interethnic relations," he said.
He warned that an all-out war between Russia and Ukraine would begin the "Third World War." He did not, however, think that Putin would move troops into Eastern Ukraine, but instead predicted forces would stay put in Crimea.
Kravchuk said that the situation in Crimea exacerbated a political and economic crisis that the new government already had to deal with. "Russian forces walk over the Ukrainian territory, over the Crimean territory and act like they are the owner," he said. "They are blocking buildings, blocking military objects and invading roughshod into our internal affairs ... by this they break all known international laws and the Ukrainian constitution. Mr. Putin blesses these Russian actions in Crimea, unfortunately."
He dismissed Putin's claim that Russia has no forces in Crimea. "My reaction to that is personally negative because Putin is speaking falsehoods," he said. "He talks about how in Crimea they are perpetuating violence, things are happening that are very frightening to Russian-speakers, lawlessness, violence, and so on -- it is all absolutely not responsible because there are no examples in reality."
He said that the Russian portrayal of the Euromaidan protesters as nationalists is also not based in reality. "Russia has chauvinists, nationalists, but it doesn't call them that. Every person should love their land, their country," he said. "I don't see such fascism or nationalism, maybe there is some extremism which exists. But it exists in other countries."
When asked how the Crimean question would be sorted out, Kravchuk said he envisioned a decentralized government in the capital. "Give more rights to regions, give more rights to the authorities in Crimea. It's not necessary for everything to be done from Kiev. Simply, they should solve their own questions -- economic, social," he said. "Kiev as a central organ of power should only work on issues, questions that are nationwide problems."
Kravchuk said that he never thought that Russia and Ukraine would be at such odds with each other.
"I did not think we would meet together in this situation," he said. "But unfortunately, we need to live through it."
Vitaly Rozman contributed reporting.