Vladimir Putin was ready to put Russia’s nuclear weapons on alert last year during Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
“We were ready to do this,” Mr Putin said in comments shown as part of a Russian state TV documentary on the one-year anniversary of Crimea’s annexation.
“[Crimea] is our historical territory. These are our Russian people there. We couldn’t abandon them and leave them in danger.”
Mr Putin said that Moscow had been prepared to use any military means necessary to defend Crimea against “the nationalists” in Kiev and their “puppet masters”: the US government.
He said Russia’s interests in Crimea and the surrounding region would always outstrip those of its western partners.
“You are where? Thousands kilometres away?” Mr Putin said, addressing the US in the broadcast. “We are right here. This is our land . . . We were ready for the worst possible scenario.”
Mr Putin, who has not appeared in public since March 5, was the star of Crimea: Return to the Motherland, a two-and-a-half-hour documentary that paid heavy homage to Mr Putin and his role in Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year.
A project eight months in the making, the documentary premiered on state TV channel Rossiya-1 on Sunday evening, 364 days to the day following Russia’s formal annexation of Crimea.
While Mr Putin initially denied that Russia had sent any military personnel into Crimea ahead of the peninsula’s referendum to join Russia, over the past year he has gradually refined his version of events.
In a television call-in session last April, Mr Putin casually announced for the first time that “the little green men” helping Crimean pro-Russian self-defence forces during the referendum, had indeed been Russian military personnel.
In Sunday evening’s documentary, Mr Putin went even further, admitting for the first time that the unidentified gunmen who took the Crimean parliament building in Simferopol early in the morning of February 27 were also Russian servicemen.
“From the point of view of Ukrainian law, everything was legal,” Mr Putin said. He said the gunmen had been sent to “guarantee the safety” of the Crimean parliamentary deputies who were gathered that day to vote on whether Crimea should stay part of Ukraine.
The documentary depicted the pro-Europe protesters on Kiev’s Maidan Square as an angry nationalist mob who had specific designs against the pro-Russian Crimean people — and gives Russian viewers a dramatic retelling of events there, with a specific narrative bent.
In supposed re-enactment scenes staged by actors, dozens of peaceful Crimean demonstrators were shown being beaten up by Kiev nationalists after attending an anti-Maidan rally in the Ukrainian capital. Another apparent re-enactment scene showed Crimean Tatars beating up pro-Russian Crimean supporters outside the Crimean parliament building last February, one day before Russian servicemen took the building, in a scene overlaid by dramatic background music.
In the documentary, Mr Putin said he personally came to the decision that Russia would have to intervene in Crimea after staying up all night with a small group of advisers on February 22-23 — the night before the Sochi Olympics’ closing ceremony and a full three weeks before Russia formally annexed the region.
While admitting that Moscow had been preparing to take Crimea well before the referendum, Mr Putin insisted that Moscow only acted the way it did because it knew it had the backing of the Crimean people. The president said that the Kremlin had conducted a secret poll in Crimea ahead of its intervention there and found that 75 per cent of the population wanted the peninsula to become part of Russia.
“We only were going to do something, if we saw that this was what the people wanted,” Mr Putin says at one point in the film. “The goal was to give people the opportunity to voice their opinion,” the president says at another moment, referring to the March 2014 referendum.
After a week-long unexplained absence, Mr Putin is due to visit St Petersburg on Monday — his first public appearance since March 5.
The Kremlin has repeatedly refused to offer any information about Mr Putin’s whereabouts, which has spawned competing theories about a looming political shake-up in the government, or potential health problems for the president.
Asked again about the issue by Russian independent TV station Dozhd over the weekend, Mr Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov once again declined to comment. “The issue is closed,” Mr Peskov told Dozhd.
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