Putin hails Crimea annexation as 'most important milestone'

Impervious to sanctions, Russian President Vladimir Putin hails Crimea annexation as historic achievement

Russian President Vladimir Putin used his New Year's address to hail the March annexation of Ukraine's Crimea region as "the most important milestone in the country's history."

The Kremlin leader's appeal to his countrymen's patriotic sentiments over the Black Sea peninsula made clear that he has no intention of backing down from the land grab that brought Western sanctions and international scorn on Moscow in 2014.

"Love for the motherland is one of the most powerful, uplifting feelings. It manifested to the full extent in the brotherly support of Crimea and Sevastopol residents, when they firmly decided to return home," Putin said in the address, which aired just before midnight in each of Russia's 11 time zones. "This event will always be the most important milestone in the country's history."

Putin also praised Russia's staging of the 2014 Olympic Winter Games in Sochi, calling the event "the best Winter Olympics in history" and telling every Russian citizen to take pride in the successful event.

Russia won the most gold medals and the most overall in the Feb. 7-23 competition, and concerns that anti-Kremlin Caucasus militants might attack the international gathering proved unfounded.

Putin's view that annexing Crimea corrected a historic injustice is one widely shared among Russians.

The peninsula that was part of imperial Russia for more than a century and remained part of the Russian Soviet Socialist Republic after the Bolshevik Revolution. Crimea is home to Russia's Black Sea fleet, and a majority of its 2 million residents are Russian.

Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev reassigned Crimea to the Ukrainian Soviet republic in 1954, when the two neighbors were both part of the Soviet Union, and the region's defense installations protected the whole 15-entity Communist federation.

Putin's popularity soared after a hastily arranged referendum under a heavy Russian military occupation on March 16 produced a reported 96% vote in favor of joining Russia. The Kremlin announced the annexation of Crimea two days later, stirring international outrage over the forcible change of borders recognized in postwar treaties.

But Russia's economy has staggered in recent months under the weight of U.S. and European Union sanctions imposed in response to the Crimea annexation and Moscow's support for separatist rebels occupying other areas of Ukraine. The ruble has lost half its value this year as foreign investors have fled the economic uncertainty intensified by falling prices for oil, sales of which are the main source of the Russian government's revenue.

Putin alluded only vaguely to the forecast of recession in the new year, which economists expect will cut Russia's gross domestic product by 4.5% unless the per-barrel price of oil rises significantly above the current $60 range.

The Kremlin leader praised fellow citizens for their unity and solidarity "both in days of triumph and at times of trial."

Putin also sent New Year's greetings to several world leaders, including President Obama.

Noting the approaching 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were united in the fight against Nazi Germany, Putin reminded Obama of "the responsibility that Russia and the United States bear for maintaining peace and international stability."

Putin said Russia was eager to do its part in cooperating with Western allies, but he said the relationship had to be one of "equality and mutual respect."

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