Putin visits Crimea to mark 2 years since annexation
President Vladimir Putin heads to Crimea on Friday as Russia marks two years since annexing the peninsula from Ukraine in a move that dramatically impacted its ties with the West.
The Kremlin strongman is to check up on the progress of a $3-billion (2.66-billion-euro) bridge project connecting Russia to Crimea, a key link that Moscow hopes will further bind it to the isolated region.
He is also expected to hold talks with Crimea’s leadership over the economic development of a region that has been largely cut off by international sanctions and Moscow’s ferocious feud with Kiev.
Meanwhile, state-sponsored concerts and public festivities are taking place across Russia to commemorate the March 2014 takeover that Moscow insists followed a referendum in which Crimea residents voted overwhelmingly to swap countries.
The takeover boosted Putin’s popularity with state media going into overdrive over a move to reclaim a region many see as Moscow’s rightful property.
A survey published last month by the independent Levada Centre showed 83 percent of Russians support Moscow’s takeover of Crimea, which was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev in 1954.
Ahead of the annexation, Putin sent in thousands of special forces to take control of army bases and government institutions across Crimea after the ouster of a pro-Russia leader by protesters in Kiev.
Ukraine and the West insist the takeover — which has not been recognised internationally — was an illegal landgrab and that the vote to join Russia was a Kremlin-organised farce.
The annexation pushed relations with the West to a new post-Cold War nadir, with Washington and the European Union slapping sanctions on Moscow.
Since then, rights groups say those who opposed the annexation have faced a crackdown.
Human Rights Watch on Friday accused the authorities of creating “a pervasive climate of fear and repression in Crimea” in the two years since annexation.
The group deplored abuses perpetrated against the Crimea Tatar community, a minority Muslim group that has opposed the Russian annexation, as well as a crackdown on pro-Ukraine activists and journalists.
The West continues to condemn the annexation, vowing to keep sanctions in place as long as Crimea remains under Russian control.
The US State Department on Wednesday called on Russia to “end that occupation and return Crimea to Ukraine” — a prospect Russian authorities have repeatedly rejected.