With Crimean Prime Minister Serhiy Aksyonov sitting in the front row, Russian President Vladimir Putin carried through on his threat to annex Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula as part of Russia — a violation of international law that he justified as heeding the will of Crimean voters in a March 16 referendum.
Putin addressed citizens of Russia, Crimea and Sevastopol to cheering applause and a standing ovation in the Kremlin hall. His nearly hour-long speech took place in an atmosphere of almost hyper-nationalistic fervor, and was punctuated by frequent bursts of applause and cheering.
The event, attended by hundreds of people in the hall and watched by millions on live TV, ended with the playing of the Russian national anthem and the signing of a treaty to make the peninsula part of Russia.
Putin said that the March 16 referendum, contrary to the West’s claims of violating international law, met all democratic standards and showed that more than 96 percent of Crimeans want to be part of Russia.
“Today we have assembled on the issue that has a vital importance, of historical importance for all of us,” Putin said. “The referendum took place in full accordance to the democracy standards and international law. The numbers are more than persuasive.
Putin said that “to understand why the choice was made that way, one needs to know the history of Crimea an Russia… As the referendum showed, most of the Crimean Tatars support Russia. There will be three state languages in Crimea – Russian, Ukrainian and Crimean Tatar” if the residents agree.
Putin said all of Crimea is sacred for Russia and that the peninsula’s two million residents are “an amalgamation of various cultures and people — and this way it’s so much like Russia.”
He said that the referendum showed that Crimeans are “oriented towards Russia,” but that the Crimean Tatars suffered unfairly, then returned to their native land and should be rehabilitated there. “Yes, Crimean Tatars were victims of injustice in Soviet times. They suffered just like many nations suffered then – Russians first of all.”
Explaining his view of Crimean history, Putin said that after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, leaders included historically Russian lands into Soviet Ukraine, now southestern Ukraine. He said that Communisty Party General Secretary Nikita Khrushchev’s decision in 1954 to turn Crimean over to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic was a violation of existing constitutional norms, but didn’t matter as much then because everyone was part of the same Soviet Union state.
“His decision was accepted as a formality, since the territories were passed over within the borders of the same state,” Putin said. “Nobody thought that these will once be different states, but it did happen.”
When Crimea became a part of Ukraine then under Soviet leader Khrushchev, “the Russians felt that it wasn’t just simple robbery – it was thievery. Many Russians went to sleep and woke up abroad. Russians became not one of the biggest – but the biggest – separated people in the world. What did Russia do? It hung over its head and accepted the fate. Crimeans say that in 1991, they were passed to Ukraine like a sack of potatoes. It is hard to disagree with that. Since thenm many people have raised the issue – and have said that Crimea is a Russian land, and Sevastopol is a Russian territory.”
Putin said that building good relations with neighboring Ukraine has always been — and will always remain – on top of Russia’s priorities.
He says the delimination of the Russian-Ukrainian border, intitiated by ex-Ukrainain President Kuchma, informally recognized the separation of Crimean land,.
“We assumed that the people in eastern and southern Ukraine, and crimea, would live in a friendly, democratic state where their rights would be observed,” Putin said. “We understand why Ukrainains wanted change. In the years of independence they got fed up with the power. The presidents changed, so did the deputies, but they continued to loot and pocket the money flows.”
He noted that many Ukrainians “searched for a better fate abroad – in Russia an estimated 3 million Ukrainian people worked in 2013,” Putin said.
He called the EuroMaidan Revolution a coup led by “nationalists, fascists, anti-Semites and Russophobes.” He said taht one of their moves was to limit the use of languages, “which directly violated the rights of minorities.” But he said their sponors were clever and said aside the draft law.
“It is clear that there is still no legitimate executive power (in Ukraine), there is nobody to talk to,” Putin said. “At the same time, they control nothing in their country, and are controlled by radicals. Even to get into the office of some ministers you can only do so by permission of the militants of Maidan. This is not a joke.”
He said Crimea was their primary target for Ukrainian nationalism and “this is why Crimeans turned to Russia for help. Obviously, we could not ignore their plea – otherwise it would be a betrayal. First of all, we had to help organize a free expression of will for the first time in history.”
“And what did we get told? That we’re violating international law,” Putin said. “First of all, I am grateful they remembered there is such a thing as international law. The armed forces of Crimea did not enter Ukraine, they were there all along. We fortified the forces, but I have to point out that we did not even go over the maximum limit of 25,000 – there was no need.”
“Ukraine itself – by announcing their independence from Soviet Union – did the same (as Crimea). Then why would they ban Crimea from doing the same?” Putin continued.
He said the West recognized an identical situation in Kosovo regarding independence. Putin quoteed a United Nations document “that one-side declarations of independence can violate national legislation, but it does not mean they are in violation of international law.”
“This is not even double standards – this is surprising and direct cynicism,” Putin said of Western double-standards. “Had the Crimean self-defense not taken the situation under their control, there could have been victims. There was not a single shot – why do you think that is? Because it’s hard to wage war against the will of the people. I want to thank the Ukrainian military – and this is 22,000 people! – for not starting bloodshed. The West says this was invasion. Have you ever seen aggression where were was no shot fired? Our Western partners, headed by the US, have started to believe that they are above all. We want an open, honest and sincere relationship with Ukraine. Today they threaten us with sanctions – but we already live in the conditions of severe limits for our economy.”
Putin went on to say that “in the time of the Cold War, there was a ban on selling the Soviet Union certain technologies. They were formally canceled, but only formally. In case of Ukraine our Western partners, they crossed the line. They acted crudely, irresponsibly and unprofessionally. They knew that millions of Russian people live in Ukraine. How could they have so little political intuition that they didn’t see the consequences.”
“I address the people of Ukraine,” Putin went on. “Understand us. We don’t want to harm you or insult your feelings. We always have respected the territorial integrity of Ukraine, unlike those who sacrificed it for the sake of political interests.”
On the question of “what will happen next,” Putin said: “If you tighten the spring, it will shoot back one day. I am grateful to the people of China, whose leadership continues to view the situation around Crimea in its full historicall complexity. Please understand us, I believe that Europeans will understand us, first of all the Germans.” Putin said that “some people were against reunification of Germany, but Russia supported it without hesitation and expects Germans to support the Crimea joining Russia in return.”
He asked people to “don’t believe those who scare you with Russia, saying that more regions will follow Crimea. Crimea is and has always been Ukrainian, Russian, Crimean Tatar. But it will never be Bandera’s,” a reference to Ukrainian nationalist Stepan Bandera (1909-1959), who is considered a traitor in Russia for allegedly working with Nazi Germany in World War II.
“I am convinced that you will, in the same style, support the desire of the Russian people for reunification,” Putin said. “Crimea is a strategically important territory for us all, which should be under management of a strong and stable force, which in fact can only be Russia today. Otherwise, we all, the Ukrainians and Russians can lose Crimea altogether. Ukraine is already talking about joining NATO fast. What would that mean for Crimea? That the NATO fleet would get stationed in Sevastopol, the city of Russian fame. And there would be threat to the whole south of Russia, had it not been the choice of the Crimeans. I could not imagine going to Sevastopol to visit the NATO marines. Most of them are nice guys, but i would rather they visit us in Sevastopol, not the other way round.”
Putin harkened back to the medieval Kyivan Rus kingdom that united the modern-day nations of Ukraine, Russia and Belarus. “Rus is our common source, and we won’t be able to live without one another. Millions of Russians will continue to live in Ukraine, and Russia will defend their rights. We would like to be friends with Ukraine. We would like the Ukrainian land to be at peace. We are ready to offer global support to this goal.|
“Crimeans have asked a non-compromising question, with no undertones,” Putin said. “The referendum was conducted in an open and transparent way, and the people in Crimea expressed their will very clearly: They want to be with Russia. Russia has a hard decision to make: there are, like in any other state, various points of view. But the study has shown that most people think Russia should defend the interests of Russians in Crimea – 95 percent, 83 percent think it should be done even if it complicates our relationship with some nations; 86 percent think Crimea is still Russian land and almost 92 percent are for joining Crimea with Russia.”
“An absolute majority of both Crimeans and Russians support reunification of Crimea with the Russian Federation. Today, based on results of the referendum conducted in Crimea (on March 16) and based on the will of people, I will introduce a law to the Federal Council of the Russian Federation on accepting two subjects to the Russian Federation, the Crimea and city of Sevastopol, and also to ratify the approved agreement to on joining by Crimea the Russian Federation. I have no doubt that you will support it.”