Vladimir Putin
President Vladimir Putin defends hardline Crimea policy in a documentary to be screened on Russian state TV. But he hasn't been seen in public since 5 March Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was poised to order Russia to ready its nuclear weapons to defend ethnic Russians in Ukraine, who he claims were at risk following the overthrow of the country's pro-Moscow government.

Speaking during an hour-long documentary to be broadcast on Russian TV tonight, Putin defends his decision to order the annexation of Crimea, and accuses the US of being behind the unrest that saw Viktor Yanukovich's pro-Moscow government overthrown and of arming rebel groups.

The documentary, Crimea – The Way Home, to be aired by Rossiya 1 news channel, comes after Putin stayed out of the public eye for more than a week, leading to rumours circulating about his health and a possible coup in the Kremlin.

During the film Putin confirms the Russian government considered reading its nuclear arsenal, in response to the Ukraine crisis: "We were ready to do this… (Crimea) is our historical territory. Russian people live there. They were in danger. We cannot abandon them."

He alleges that the US armed and trained rebel groups in the country, saying, "The trick of the situation was that outwardly the [Ukrainian] opposition was supported mostly by the Europeans. But we knew for sure that the real masterminds were our American friends.

"They helped training the nationalists, their armed groups, in Western Ukraine, in Poland and to some extent in Lithuania," he added. "They facilitated the armed coup."

He said the uprising had left the country "shattered".

"The law was thrown away and crashed. And the consequences were grave indeed. Part of the country agreed to it, while another part wouldn't accept it," Putin said.

He also claims that Yanukovich would have been killed, if Russian special forces (spetsnaz) would have been killed.

"I invited the heads of our special services, the Defense Ministry and ordered them to protect the life of the Ukrainian president. Otherwise he would have been killed," says Putin.

The president describes how Yanukovich narrowly escaped being ambushed, before being taken to Russia under armed protection.

Putin said that he only ordered troops into Crimea after a snap poll showed public backing for moving military forces into the peninsula, and insists Russia would have respected the Crimean independence referendum held in March 2014.

"Our goal was not to take Crimea by annexing it. Our final goal was to allow the people express their wishes on how they want to live," he said.

The West has disputed the legality of the referendum, which resulted in Crimea declaring allegiance to Russia, and claims Russia seized the territory by force.

The EU and US both accuse Russia of being behind the unrest in east Ukraine, where fighting between pro-Russian militias and Ukrainian forces has claimed more than 6,000 lives.