KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — In his first interview since taking office, Ukraine's new prime minister vigorously defended the legality of his government against attacks coming from Russia, but said Wednesday that Ukraine would be willing to consider granting more autonomy to the Crimea region to assuage the concerns of the province's pro-Russian population.
Speaking to The Associated Press, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk denied reports that Ukraine is seeking military assistance from the United States.
Since last weekend, Russian troops have taken control of much of the Crimea, a peninsula in the Black Sea where Russian speakers are in the majority.
Yatsenyuk, who took office last week, blamed Russian President Vladimir Putin for causing one of the sharpest international crises in Europe since the end of the Cold War — and expressed fears about further possible Russian incursions.
Asked by AP if he was afraid that Russia might send troops to occupy other Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, Yatsenyuk said: "Let me put it bluntly: yes, it's still a concern and Russia is to realize its responsibility and Russia is to stick to its international obligation, to stop the invasion.
"Mr. President (Putin), stop this mess," said Yatsenyuk.
The prime minister, approved by parliament on Feb. 27, also denied a report that cash-strapped Ukraine was negotiating with the United States for deployment of U.S. missile defenses in exchange for financial help.
"This is not true," Yatsenyuk told the AP. "We have no talks with the government of the United States of America on any kind of deployment of any military forces. The only negotiations we have is to get financial support, financial aid from the United States government in order to stabilize the economic situation in my country. It's absurd."
On Tuesday, Putin said Ukraine's current leaders had come to power as the result of an unconstitutional coup. In the interview, Yatsenyuk blamed Russia's leader for the ongoing crisis and said Putin was the one acting outside the law.
"A number of military forces of the Russian Federation are deployed in Crimea. We cannot figure out the reason why Russian boots are on Ukrainian ground. And it's crystal clear that it was ordered personally by President Putin. This is Ukrainian territory and Russia wants to grab control over Crimea. But I will underline again, we will do our best in order to regain control over Ukrainian territory. The Russian military is to be back in the barracks."
"What happened in Crimea is unconstitutional and resembles ... a coup supported by the Russian government and the Russian military," Yatsenyuk said.