People wave Russian national flag as they celebrate the third anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea by the Russian Federation in Sevastopol on March 18, 2017. PHOTO: Max Vetrov / AFP
Russia on Saturday marked a low-key third anniversary of the seizure of Crimea from Ukraine, as Kiev blasted the annexation of the strategic Black Sea peninsula as a “crime”.
State-run television showed footage of sparsely attended concerts and parades in cities across the vast country and there was much less fanfare over the event than in previous years.
President Vladimir Putin — who last year spent the anniversary visiting Crimea — was not expected to take part in any of the official celebrations that include a concert and firework display in Moscow.
Russia seized Crimea from Ukraine in 2014 following the ouster of its Kremlin-backed leader by mass protests in Kiev.
Putin ordered out thousands of special forces troops to take control of strategic infrastructure before a hastily organised referendum was held that was rejected by the international community.
The Kremlin argued it was reacting to an illegal coup in Kiev. The move unleashed a wave of nationalist sentiment that saw Putin’s popularity soar, with many Russians seeing the region that once belonged to Moscow as their country’s rightful property.
The annexation plunged ties between Russia and the West to their lowest level since the Cold War, as the US and EU responded with sanctions against Moscow.
“Three years ago Russia committed a crime many thought unimaginable for 21st century – occupied Crimea,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry wrote on Twitter.
The takeover of Crimea was followed by a separatist conflict in eastern Ukraine that has claimed some 10,000 lives in nearly three years of fighting that Russia is accused of stage-managing.
Ukraine said Saturday that four of its soldiers were killed along the volatile frontline in fighting over the past 24 hours.