MOSCOW (AP) — Russian President Vladimir Putin has used his New Year's speech to hail his country's annexation of Ukraine's Crimea Peninsula as an achievement that will "forever remain a landmark in the national history."
Putin's comment in his pre-recorded annual address on Wednesday already has been broadcast in Russia's far eastern regions, where the holiday was celebrated hours ahead of Moscow, given the time difference.
The Kremlin also published several dozen New Year's messages that Putin has sent to heads of state and international organizations, including one to President Barack Obama.
Putin reminded Obama of the upcoming 70th anniversary of the allied victory in World War II, and said that should serve as a reminder of "the responsibility that Russia and the United States bear for maintaining peace and international stability." Moscow is anxious for those bilateral relations to advance, but only as long as there is "equality and mutual respect."
After Ukraine's former Russia-friendly president was driven from power in February, Moscow sent troops to overtake Crimea, home to a Russian naval base. Those forces blocked Ukrainian military garrisons and set the stage for a hastily called referendum on Crimea joining Russia, which Ukraine and the West rejected as illegal.
The West has imposed crippling sanctions against Russia over the annexation of Crimea and Moscow's support for a pro-Russian insurgency in eastern Ukraine, where the fighting between the government troops and the rebels has killed more than 4,700 since April.
Under the combined blow of the sanctions and slumping oil prices, the Russian ruble has lost about half its value this year and the national economy has drifted into recession. Putin has promised that the economy will rebound in two years, but he has failed to offer a specific plan for easing Russia's heavy dependence on oil and gas revenues.
In his speech, Putin praised Crimea's "return home," a view widely backed by many Russians who saw Ukraine's control over the Black Sea region a historic injustice. Crimea only became part of Ukraine when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave the peninsula to his native land in 1954. That mattered little until the Soviet Union broke up in 1991 and Crimea ended up in an independent Ukraine.
Experts have warned that Putin's popularity, which soared after the annexation of Crimea, could fizzle quickly amid his nation's economic downturn. But the Russian leader refrained from directly referring to Russia's economic woes in his New Year address, praising his citizens for their readiness to stay united "both in days of triumphs and at a time of trials" and to maintain their "unity and solidarity."
Nataliya Vasilyeva in Moscow contributed to this report.