Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article mistakenly identified Mariupol as lying on the Black Sea. In fact, it lies on the Sea of Azov, a northern extension of the Black Sea.
Much has changed since Russia and the United States were important partners, Russian Presidential Spokesman Dmitry Peskov – right-hand man to President Vladimir Putin – told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in an exclusive interview on Wednesday.
“Let’s be frank. Quite unexpectedly lots of water has passed under the bridges since that time,” he said with a wry laugh.
“We have witnessed a tremendous clash of interests,” he said, “in the heart of Europe, in Ukraine.”
“So in the front of illegitimate armed takeover, armed coup that occurred in Kiev one year ago, Russia took a position – quite understandable one – but very, very frank, very open and very firm.”
“The only thing we want is that our national interests, our sovereign rights and sovereign interests … [are] treated with due respect. As soon as it happens, there will be a time for new renaissance in [our] international relationship.”
That relationship, of course, has completely broken down over the civil war in Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatist troops are battling with the Ukrainian military for control of the eastern part of that country.
Two weeks after a ceasefire agreement was signed in Minsk, heavy fighting has continued.
Heavy weaponry now finally appears to be on the move, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) says, but it is not sure whether it is being withdrawn (as was agreed to in the ceasefire) or just moved around.
Peskov admitted that the withdrawal is “very shaky” but said that the “militiamen of Donetsk,” in eastern Ukraine, had “started to withdraw their heavy artillery.”
He said that he had received information that the OSCE “refused to witness the process” of withdrawal.
That runs counter to what OSCE spokesman Michael Bociurkiw told CNN on the phone Wednesday: That his organization was trying to access the areas in question, and that both the separatists and the Ukrainian military were with-holding information about their weaponry, the corridors for their transfer, and where they were being stored.
Moscow denies having any involvement in the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“Russia,” Peskov said, “is not a country that is allowing or not allowing separatists to move towards one city or one village or another.”
The most eastern Ukrainian hot-spot now is Mariupol, a strategic city on the Sea of Azov that could eventually help open a corridor between Russian-annexed Crimea and the Russian mainland.
Peskov emphasized that Russia does not control separatists, but said that he did not believe they would move on the city, where the OSCE has reported heavy shelling.
“Those people are responding, are responding to hostile actions, hostile attacks against their own soil, against their own people.”
“They are endangered and they are responding.”
It was this argument of “endangered” ethnic-Russians that the Kremlin used as justification last year to annex the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea, after pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country.
But an article in Russia’ Novaya Gazeta newspaper, reported by the New York Times, says that in fact the “Kremlin was advised to annex Crimea and a large swath of southeastern Ukraine weeks before the Ukrainian government fell.”
Responding to the allegation, Peskov attacked Novaya Gazeta, a prominent independent paper.
“No, this is not true. This is not true. Or maybe, maybe. I mean, I cannot exclude. Because I don’t know the paper. I don’t know who is the author of the paper.”
“It’s a newspaper … sometimes they make, well, unimaginable publications. And I don’t see any reason for us to react. The only thing I can tell you – even if kind of that paper exists, it has nothing to do with the Kremlin. And it has nothing to do with official papers in Russian government.”
As war rages in Ukraine, the Russian military has seemed to taunt the rest of Europe with airplanes or boats that skirt – or sometimes violate – national boundaries.
NATO says its members scrambled jets more than 400 times in 2014 – 50% more than the previous year – in response to Russian military aircraft.
“Every time they start to make buzz about Russian jets planes or military planes navigating in international corridors, every time they make that buzz, willingly or unwillingly they forget to mention NATO planes, British planes, and American planes doing the same in the same corridor.”
“So it’s international practice, it’s internationally agreed. It’s internationally observed. And it’s internationally accepted. Let’s remember that.”