By Anastasia Lyrchikova and Andrew Osborn
SEVASTOPOL/MOSCOW (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin flew into Crimea on Monday to celebrate the fifth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the region from Ukraine and led cheering crowds in repeated chants of “Russia” after inaugurating two new power stations.
Putin, who has poured billions of Russian taxpayer dollars into Crimea since Moscow seized control of it in 2014, attended the launch of a power station in the city of Sevastopol and oversaw the launch of another in Simferopol by video conference.
The facilities — able to cover 90 percent of Crimea’s power needs — were partially launched last year, but Monday’s inauguration marked the moment they began working at full capacity.
The same power stations were at the centre of an international scandal after German engineering company Siemens said its power turbines had been installed at them without its knowledge and in violation of European Union sanctions. Russia denied that.
Putin on Monday fielded questions from local religious and community leaders and told a crowd at a pop concert that what he called their historical decision to become part of Russia in a 2014 referendum was comparable to the bravery of Red Army soldiers at the start of World War Two.
“Only the basic conditions of development have been laid down, but we will do everything to achieve the goals before us,” Putin told the crowd, some of whom could be seen wiping tears from their eyes.
Russia has spent heavily to try to integrate Crimea, including building a bridge to link the peninsula to southern Russia. But Western sanctions designed to punish Moscow for its annexation have helped isolate the peninsula, pushing up prices and slowing its development.
Russia has spent the last five years steadily militarising the peninsula and on Monday a senior lawmaker told the RIA news agency that Moscow had deployed a squadron of nuclear-capable Tupolev Tu-22M3 strategic bombers there.
NATO said in a statement it condemned what it called “Russia’s ongoing and wide-ranging military build-up in Crimea.”
Ukraine issued a diplomatic protest note over what it said was Putin’s unauthorised visit, saying Crimea was Ukrainian territory. Most countries continue to regard it as such.
Russia says the matter is closed forever however, and that the referendum held after Russian forces secured the peninsula showed Crimeans genuinely want to be part of Russia.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova, Andrei Makhovsky in Minsk and Robin Emmott in Brussels; Editing by Tom Balmforth)