Former Yanukovich ally and Ukraine's richest man tells ITV News the country should remain independent and united

Rinat Akhmetov speaking to ITV News' Europe Correspondent Emma Murphy. Credit: ITV News

Ukraine's richest man, and former ally of ousted president Victor Yanukovich, has exclusively told ITV News that he believes Ukraine should remain a unified nation and should not relinquish any part of the country to Russia.

In this first interview since the crisis in Crimea, Rinat Akhmetov urged Vladimir Putin to respect Ukraine's sovereignty and urged all those involved to behave in a democratic way.

Mr Akhmetov, who rarely gives interviews, added that despite the events of recent months, Ukraine, Russia and the European Union could prosper in partnership.

ITV News' Europe Correspondent Emma Murphy reports:

Akhmetov, 47, is the owner of Ukraine's largest business holding and controls nearly half of the country's coal, steel, ore and thermoelectricity sectors.

He is also the owner and president of the Ukrainian football club Shakhtar Donetsk.

As one of the most influential men in the eastern part of the country, he insists that there should be no separation between East and West despite the current divide.

"Ukraine is going through not an easy time and I am sure that Ukraine will become stronger after going through this difficult situation," Mr Akhmetov told ITV News' Europe Correspondent Emma Murphy.

"I always wanted Ukraine to be independent, unified and strong. I am sure that this journey we will go through this journey with dignity and our heads held high."

Rinat Akhmetov is one of the richest men in Ukraine. Credit: ITV News

Pro-Russia supporters and Russian forces are currently occupying the Crimean peninsula, and there have been tense exchanges between Ukrainian and Russian troops.

Mr Akhmetov said Russia remained Ukraine's "friend and strategical partner", and the situation between the two countries could be resolved in a "peaceful and democratic way".

ITV News' Emma Murphy speaking to Rinat Akhmetov. Credit: ITV News

Efforts to foster talks between Russia and Ukraine have proved unsuccessful so far.

The United Nations' special envoy Robert Serry was forced to shelter in a coffee shop after being "severely threatened" in Crimea yesterday, in an incident which seemingly harmed diplomatic efforts.

Read: ITV News witnesses UN envoy being trapped by local militia in Crimea cafe

There has been tense exchanges between Russian and Ukrainian troops in the region. Credit: Reuters

MPs in Crimea voted unanimously to become part of Russia and the government have set a referendum for 10 days time where the region's citizens will be able to make the choice.

Ukraine's prime minister called the parliament's decision illegitimate and said the planned referendum had no legal grounds.

Mr Akhmetov said Ukraine had to remain a "strong, independent and unified country" as he dismissed calls from some citizens suggesting that eastern Ukraine should be independent or move further towards the Russian Federation.

Read: Donetsk divided as pro-Russia and pro-Ukraine activists clash

Troops, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk in formation in Crimea. Credit: Reuters

Asked what he would say to Russian president Vladimir Putin, the tycoon said:

I am sure that we should build stronger relations with Russia, respecting each other’s position. And we also want Russia to respect Ukraine.We wish good and prosperity to Russia and Russian people. In this situation we should only use diplomatic language. If we do that both countries, Russia and Ukraine will come out of this situation as winners, and the EU can win in this situation too.

Read: Cold War returns with a vengeance in Washington