Russia to fete a year with Crimea back in the fold
Russia is gearing up to celebrate the one-year anniversary on Monday of Crimea voting to leave Ukraine and join the Russian state in a takeover blasted as illegal in the West but seen at home as a triumph for Vladimir Putin.
The hastily organised March 16, 2014 referendum -- which Putin now admits came well after he'd already taken the decision to seize the Black Sea peninsula from Kiev -- kickstarted a bloody separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine and sent Moscow's relations with the West into a tailspin.
The move struck a deep chord with Russians, however, cementing Putin's 15-year grip on power as his approval ratings have continued to climb in the past year, hitting a record 88 percent, according to figures released last week.
The Russian strongman described the annexation of Crimea as a mission to rescue the majority Russian-speaking peninsula from Ukrainian "nationalists" who pushed out the Moscow-backed government in a pro-Western street revolt.
This played well with Russians who are themselves in increasingly nationalist mood, but was blasted in the West and by Ukraine as an aggressive land grab.
Crimea will celebrate its year with Russia with rallies and concerts in its capital Simferopol from Monday to Wednesday -- the official day of its annexation, which will be a public holiday.
Moscow will hold a concert on Wednesday near the Kremlin themed "We are Together".
- Celebrations, isolation -
But the celebrations cap a tough year for Crimeans who have become increasingly isolated after Kiev cut train and airline services to the peninsula, leaving an unreliable ferry to Russia as their sole link to the outside world.
The economy has also been strangled by Western sanctions blocking investment in the peninsula and a drop in tourists to its once-popular beaches.
However while many young Crimeans or those who identify as Ukrainian have left the peninsula, complaining about a climate of fear under Russian rule, a poll this month showed 82 percent of residents support joining Russia. Only four percent were opposed.
"No sanction, no threat... will make the residents of Crimea give up their choice. Russian Crimea will be self-sufficient and prosperous," said the president of the Crimean parliament Vladimir Konstantinov in a recent statement.
- 'Prepared for the worst' -
A documentary shown on Russian state television Sunday called "Homeward Bound" gave a detailed account of Moscow's version of the takeover.
Days after Kiev's Russian-backed government fell to pro-Western protesters, unidentified gunmen, later revealed to be Russian soldiers, fanned out across the province to support locals declaring independence from Ukraine.
Just weeks later on March 16 the controversial referendum was held and 97 percent of Crimean residents opted to return to Moscow rule, according to the official results, and two days later Putin signed the annexation treaty.
Ukraine and Western capitals denounced the referendum as a sham.
Putin says in the documentary he was willing to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert in case the West tried to intervene militarily.
Russia was ready to face "the worst possible turn of events", he added.
Putin described sending thousands of land, air and sea troops to Crimea, including special forces, to neutralise about 20,000 Ukrainian troops on the peninsula.
"We turned Crimea into a sea and land fortress," he said, adding the aim was to give people an opportunity to choose their own future.
Soon after the annexation, pro-Russian separatists surfaced in eastern Ukraine, taking on the weak Ukrainian army and carving out a swath of territory where they held their own unrecognised independence votes.
The Kremlin denies arming the rebels and sending Russian troops to fight a conflict that has since left over 6,000 dead, according to UN figures.
However Putin insists his actions in Crimea prevented the kind of violence now seen in eastern Ukraine.
© 2015 AFP