Crimea has kicked off celebrations to mark one year since a controversial vote that led to Russia’s annexation of the peninsula.
Fireworks and concerts were planned in the Black Sea peninsula on Monday for the festivities a year after the controversial poll saw residents vote under the watchful eye of elite Russian troops in unmarked uniforms who had swarmed key sites in Crimea two weeks earlier.
Pro-Russian authorities said nearly 97 per cent of Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia in the hastily-organised referendum, but with no independent observers allowed the poll was widely dismissed abroad.
Two days later Putin signed a treaty incorporating Crimea into Russia, sending his ties with the West into a tailspin but boosting his popularity at home to record highs that official statistics said hit 88 per cent last week.
As the red, white and blue Russian flag fluttered throughout the peninsula on Monday, the European Union criticised the growing militarisation of Crimea, the home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet, under Moscow rule.
“One year after the holding of an illegal and illegitimate referendum of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia, the European Union is firmly committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine,” EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
In a documentary broadcast on Sunday, Putin presented himself as the saviour of Crimea forced to deploy troops to prevent a war with “nationalists” in Kiev.
He also said that at the time he had prepared to put his nuclear forces on alert in case of western intervention.
The annexation of Crimea was a critical event in the Ukrainian crisis, which many believe triggered the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine where more than 6000 have since been killed in fighting.