Tens of thousands of people have celebrated, with Vladimir Putin in Moscow, the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.
The festivities came a year to the day since the Russian president signed a treaty integrating Crimea, on 18 March 2014.
The president told the crowd outside the Kremlin that the move was to protect ethnic Russians and regain the nation’s “historic roots”.
“We realised that the question of Crimea is not just a question of territory, even territory of strategic importance,” Putin said. “This deals with the millions of Russian people, about the millions of our compatriots who need our help and support… Thank you for your support. Long live Russia!”
Vladimir Putin said his country would “overcome all problems and difficulties that they try to throw at us from outside” – a reference to Western sanctions that followed the annexation and the Moscow-backed rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
He went on to say that he continues to think that “Russians and Ukrainians are one people”, hoping that Ukrainians would condemn “extreme nationalists” and that the two nations could restore normal relations.
The crowd – estimated at 110,000 by the police – sang patriotic songs and chanted “Russia!” and “Putin!”. Many waved Russian flags and banners bearing the slogan “Together, we are invincible”.
The integration of Crimea into Russia has helped keep Putin’s popularity at record levels – almost 90 percent according to some opinion polls – despite a domestic economic downturn and the sharp devaluation of the rouble.
But in contrast to the euphoria in Moscow, Amnesty International has published a report detailing numerous human rights abuses by the authorities in Crimea since the Russian annexation.