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Putin arrives in Crimea to mark five years since peninsula ‘rejoined’ Russia

Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev with Russian President Vladimir Putin. (Kremlin/Released)

This article was originally published by Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and is reprinted with permission.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Crimea to mark the fifth anniversary of what Moscow considers the day Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula became part of Russia.

Ukraine and the West have slammed Russia’s move as an “illegal” annexation, leading to sanctions against Russian individuals and entities.

Putin, on March 18, inaugurated two new power stations in the cities of Sevastopol and Simferopol.

The power stations were partially launched last year, but the March 18 inauguration marked the moment they began working at full capacity.

The two power stations were at the center of an international scandal after German conglomerate Siemens said its power turbines had been installed there without its knowledge and in violation of EU sanctions banning the supply of energy technology to Crimea.

The EU widened sanctions against Russian companies and persons in 2017 in response to the transfer of the turbines to the Russian-occupied region.

The Russian Foreign Ministry called the decision an “unfriendly and unjustified” step.

The Kremlin said earlier that Putin will attend celebrations marking five years since Crimea “rejoined” Russia.

On March 18, 2014, Putin signed a treaty that Moscow claims made Ukraine’s Crimea region part of Russia, after Russian forces seized control of the peninsula and organized a referendum that was not recognized by the international community.

Ahead of this year’s anniversary, the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, sharply criticized the Kremlin for the “illegal” annexation of Crimea and repeated the bloc’s “steadfast” commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The takeover of Crimea “remains a direct challenge to international security, with grave implications for the international legal order that protects the territorial integrity, unity, and sovereignty of all states,” Mogherini said in a declaration on March 17.

Mogherini blamed Moscow for the deteriorating human rights situation in Crimea, saying that residents of the peninsula “face systematic restrictions of fundamental freedoms,” while the rights of the Crimean Tatars have been “gravely violated.”

On March 15, the United States, together with the European Union and Canada, imposed new sanctions on more than a dozen Russian officials and businesses in response to the country’s “continued aggression in Ukraine.”

Ukrainian government forces have been fighting against Russia-backed separatists in Ukraine’s eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk since April 2014 in a conflict that has killed some 13,000 people — a quarter of them civilians.

In November 2018, Russia captured three Ukrainian ships and their 24 crew members near the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov. The 24 Ukrainian sailors are still being held by Moscow.

Putin’s trust and support ratings in opinion polls, which were significantly bolstered by the 2014 annexation of Crimea, have declined in recent months amid Russia’s ongoing economic woes.

Putin has dominated politics in Russia for two decades, serving as president or prime minister since 1999. In 2018, Putin, 66, was reelected to another six-year term. Critics say he has maintained his near monopoly on power by crushing the political opposition and stifling dissent.