KYIV -- Former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who is a leading candidate in the country's March 31 presidential election, has defended her support for Kyiv's 2014 decision not to use military force to resist Russia's annexation of the Black Sea region of Crimea.
Tymoshenko, who recent polls show among the top three of 39 remaining candidates, cited a lack of military and diplomatic weapons in the face of an invasion that robbed Ukraine of the Crimean Peninsula and preceded five years of continued bloodshed in other parts of eastern Ukraine.
"At the time that all began, Ukraine had no army and no international support," Tymoshenko said in an exclusive interview with RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service.
"If we had given in to the provocation that had been arranged -- and we knew from foreign intelligence sources...that the...Kremlin was waiting for just one killed Crimean or one killed serviceman from the Black Sea Fleet to let loose Russian forces all along Ukraine's border with the aggressor," Tymoshenko said.
The conflict in eastern Ukraine has left around 13,000 people dead, some 30,000 injured, and uprooted well over 1 million Ukrainian citizens, according to UN and Ukrainian officials.
"I have expressed my position that if [Russia] had managed to provoke [aggressive] actions from us, they would have occupied two-thirds of Ukraine and we would have hundreds of thousands of people dead today."
Tymoshenko also said that if elected she would reject the Minsk process for resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine and launch a new process guided by the terms of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum.
"I didn't accept the Minsk agreements from day one," Tymoshenko said. She described the Minsk process as based on an agreement between "terrorists" in eastern Ukraine and "people who don't hold official posts in Ukraine."
"My question is: Who's representing Ukraine?" she concluded.
The highest priority, Tymoshenko said, must be to return Crimea. She said the fact that the Minsk process, which aims to resolve the conflict in eastern Ukraine between Moscow-backed separatists formations and the Ukrainian government, did not include discussion of Crimea was tantamount to "state treason."
Under the Minsk process, Kyiv holds talks with representatives of the separatist formations with the goal of establishing a stable cease-fire and then moving toward a political settlement.
Kyiv and the West have accused Moscow of not living up to its commitment to pressure the separatist formations to implement the Minsk scheme, including allowing Kyiv to secure its international border with Russia.
Poroshenko 'Not A Patriot'
Tymoshenko has long advocated resolving the conflict with Russia within the framework of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, in which Russia, the United States, and the United Kingdom offered Ukraine security guarantees in exchange for its surrender of Soviet-era nuclear weapons.
"I would remind you that the Budapest Memorandum was signed by the president of the United States [at the time, Bill Clinton], the prime minister of Great Britain [then John Major], and the president of the Russian Federation [then Boris Yeltsin]," Tymoshenko said. "This is precisely the format in which we must now sit down to fulfill the Budapest Memorandum."
She insisted that such talks must include "the president of the occupying country, the president of the Russian Federation."
Tymoshenko also called on Western countries to provide greater "defensive weaponry" to Ukraine as a means of applying pressure on "the aggressor country."
Tymoshenko, 58, is one of the top three candidates in a field of 39 running in the March 31 presidential election. Incumbent President Petro Poroshenko and comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy are the other frontrunners.
Tymoshenko also slammed Poroshenko in the RFE/RL interview, accusing him of embezzling "the defense budget through illegal deals with the aggressor [Russia]" and calling on him to resign, a demand that she has expressed before.
"He's not a patriot," she said. "He's a thief, a corrupted official who's been secretly making deals with the Kremlin."