ROSTOV-ON-DON, Russia: Ousted leader Viktor Yanukovich insisted on Tuesday that he remained Ukraine's legitimate president and commander-in-chief, saying he would return to Kiev and appealing to the armed forces to defy any "criminal orders" handed down by his foes.
In a defiant statement delivered in Russia, to where he fled last month, Yanukovich attacked what he called the "band of ultranationalists and neo-fascists" that have replaced his government, and criticised their Western backers.
"I want to ask the patrons of these dark forces in the West: Have you gone blind? Have you forgotten what fascism is?" Yanukovich told reporters in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don in his second such appearance since his overthrow on Feb. 22.
"I am certain the officers and soldiers of Ukraine ... know what you are worth and will not carry out your criminal orders," said Yanukovich, who claims opposition forces shot police and civilians during protests that led to his downfall.
He said those who seized power who would answer for their orders to shoot at people.
The former opposition leaders who came to power after his overthrow, which followed three months of demonstrations against his decision to spurn pacts with the European Union and draw closer to Russia, blame government forces for the deaths.
Yanukovich made his appeal to the army after Ukraine's acting president told parliament of plans to raise a new national guard to protect against internal and external threats.
He said Ukraine's current leaders "want to include fighters from nationalist organisations into the armed forces, put weapons in their hands" and "unleash civil war".
Turning to politics, he said a May 25 presidential election that Western governments hope will help cement the political change in Ukraine would be "illegal and illegitimate", and said he would return to Kiev "as soon as circumstances allow".
"I'm sure the wait will not be long," he said.
That was a bold promise for a man whose authority has been dismissed by the West and questioned by Russia, and who began his statement by saying simply that he was still alive. At the end, he strode from the room without taking questions.
The upheaval in Ukraine has escalated into the biggest showdown between Russia and the West since the Cold War but Yanukovich has been relegated to the sidelines since his overthrow and had not been seen publicly since a news conference on Feb. 28.
At the time, Yanukovich said the Crimea region should remain part of Ukraine but enjoy autonomy. On Tuesday he seemed to hold out little hope for that, saying only that Crimea was "breaking away" from Ukraine and that his foes were to blame.
Russia has taken control of Crimea - though it denies pro-Russian forces there answer to Moscow - and has threatened to send the armed forces into Ukraine it deems it necessary to protect its citizens and other Russian-speakers there.
Pro-Russian politicians who have taken over Crimea's government plan to stage a referendum on Sunday on making the region, which has an ethnic Russian majority, part of Russia - a move Western governments say is unacceptable.
Yanukovich criticised U.S. plans to extend financial aid to Ukraine, citing what he said was U.S. law prohibiting aid to illegitimate foreign authorities. He said he would raise the issue with the U.S. Congress and Supreme Court.
"You do not have the right, according to your own laws, to give money to bandits," Yanukovich said.