Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended Moscow’s annexation of Crimea this year and implied that the “strategically important” peninsula will remain part of Russia “from now on and forever.”
In his annual state of the union address, Putin called Crimea’s March referendum, which backed breaking away from Ukraine, and its parliament’s decision to join Russia “absolutely legitimate,” though thousands of Russian troops in unmarked uniforms had earlier in the month taken control of most of the territory and were in effect blocking all Ukrainian army and naval bases.
Putin, speaking in the Kremlin, called “the reunification” of Russia and Crimea a historic event, turning to ancient history to extract the roots of the matter.
“For our country, for our people, this event has a special meaning because our people live in Crimea and the territory itself is strategically important,” Putin said. “It was here in Crimea in ancient Khersones or Korsun as the chroniclers called it, that Count Vladimir was baptized [in the 10th century] to then baptize the rest of Rus.”
Putin said the historic landmarks of Crimea have a sacred meaning for Russians as important “as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for those who profess Islam and Judaism.”
The audience — consisting of lawmakers, officials and clerics — broke into applause.
Putin said Russia has always supported Ukraine’s sovereignty but denounces “the state coup, the armed capture of power in Kiev last February.” At that time, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was forced from power after his decision to forgo an economic deal with the European Union in favor of ties with Russia was met with mass protests.
“We see today in Ukraine that the tragedy in its southeast completely proves the righteousness of our position,” Putin said, referring to the conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia separatists.
Officials in Kiev, Washington and European capitals allege that the separatists are supported by Moscow, but Putin on Thursday again blamed the West, namely the United States, saying it had interfered and incited violence in Ukraine.
“It is not for nothing that I mention our American friends, as they directly or from behind the wings always influence our relations with our neighbors,” Putin said. “Sometimes you don’t even know who it is best to talk with: to the governments of some countries or directly to their U.S. guardians and sponsors.”
Putin did not mention reported Russian military involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, laying blame for the violence on Kiev and its sponsors. NATO officials, however, say they have observed Russian armed convoys crossing the unprotected border into Ukraine.
Russia continues to support Ukraine’s economy despite the strained relations with Kiev, Putin said.
Since the beginning of protests in Ukraine in November 2013, Russia has invested more than $32 billion in direct credits and natural gas supplies, the Russian leader said.
Putin called Western governments’ economic sanctions against Russia “a nervous reaction of the United States and its allies to our position” on Ukraine. For its part, Russia announced that it is banning the import of U.S. poultry beginning Friday, the RIA Novosti news agency reported Thursday.
In Cold War-style rhetoric, Putin also charged that the Western sanctions are just a pretext to prevent Russia from expanding its influence in the world.
“Every time somebody thinks that Russia has become too strong and independent, these instruments are immediately applied,” Putin said. “However, it is senseless to speak to Russia from a position of force.”
Taras Berezovets, a Kiev-based political and economic analyst, said that Putin repeatedly tries to justify the annexation of Crimea, but that Ukraine’s government plans a lawsuit in international court against Russia for the annexation and the destruction of the infrastructure of the Donbas region.
“It is clear to [Ukrainian] President [Petro] Poroshenko and his government that while Putin is alive and in power he will never give Crimea back to Ukraine,” said Berezovets, director of Berta Communications, a think tank. “His historic claim that the cradle of Russian Orthodoxy was in Crimea is totally absurd as it contradicts the official Russian Patriarchy’s line that Russian Orthodoxy stems from Kiev and the Dnieper River.”
Special correspondent Victoria Butenko in Kiev contributed to this report.