Yushchenko To Putin: 'Ukraine Can Defend Itself Without Russia'

KIEV, Ukraine -- Ukraine President Viktor Yushchenko on Thursday sharply criticised his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin for suggesting the Kremlin's Black Sea fleet could help regional security by protecting Ukraine from exterior threats.

Viktor Yushchenko (L) and Vladimir Putin (R)

'Ukraine is a sovereign nation and has sufficient military forces to take care of itself ... and is in no need of assistance from any other foreign nation,' Yushchenko said in Helsinki.

Yushchenko's remarks were the Ukrainian president's first public response to Tuesday comments by Putin arguing Russian naval and land forces stationed in Ukraine's Crimea province contributed to regional stability, and could if necessary defend Ukraine from outside attack.

Ukraine's Defence Minister Anatoly Hrytsenko was even more direct in his criticism of Putin's declaration, telling reporters in Kiev: 'I cannot imagine a situation where Ukraine would ask another country for help in preventing interference in our internal affairs.'

'There are no changes in plans for the (Russian) fleet to remain in Crimea after its lease runs out,' he said.

Putin's remarks came during a three-hour television call-in programme on Russian state television. The Russian leader had been responding to a question from a citizen of the Ukrainian port city Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea fleet is based.

'We are prepared ... to provide assistance to our neighbour and brotherly republic Ukraine, to protect her, in case someone were to have the idea of interfering in her internal affairs,' Putin said during the televised question-and-answer session.

Putin qualified his remarks by saying he believed Ukraine should resolve its internal matters on its own.

His comments nevertheless sparked an almost immediate firestorm of rhetoric by Ukrainian commentators across the political spectrum, as one of the few things Ukraine's widely-divided ruling clans agree on is that they prefer to run the former Soviet republic without Russia's help.

The term 'brotherly republic' is a politically-loaded term in both Russia and Ukraine, implying effective subordination of Kiev to Moscow's control.

The expression 'protection from foreign interference in internal affairs' is if anything even more inflammatory, as the phrase was the standard justification given by the Soviet Union to invade its smaller neighbours.

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have been thorny since Ukraine's 2004 Orange Revolution, which shifted the country's foreign policy orientation from Russia towards Europe.

Increasing Russian assertiveness in the international arena in recent years has exacerbated the conflict.

A treaty between Russia and Ukraine allows Russia to base its Black Sea fleet in the port Sevastopol until 2017.

Source: Deutsche Presse-Agentur