Russia rules out return of Crimea, defying sanctions on its ailing economy

This week marks the first anniversary of Russia's legal annexation of Crimea, a territory of Ukraine that was seized in the aftermath of a revolt in Kiev. 

Maxim Shemetov/Reuters
Spectators watch the action standing next to Russian and Crimean flags during celebrations marking the first anniversary of Russia's annexation of Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, in central Simferopol March 16, 2015. Moscow was ready to put its nuclear forces on alert to ensure Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine last year, President Vladimir Putin said in a pre-recorded documentary aired on Sunday.

Russia said it would not hand back Crimea to Ukraine, even as the US and Europe warned that retaliatory economic sanctions on Russia would remain in place.

"There is no occupation of Crimea. Crimea is a region of the Russian Federation and of course the subject of our regions is not up for discussion," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Tuesday, Reuters reports.

Moscow has said repeatedly it would not return Crimea to Ukraine. Mar. 21 marks one year since Russia's approval of the territory's annexation in the wake of the toppling of a pro-Russian president of Ukraine. 

Mr. Pesokov's statement came a day after President Vladmir Putin ordered nearly 40,000 troops to go on full alert in snap military exercises in the Arctic as part of his effort to expand Russia's presence in the region. In response to Moscow's saber-rattling, a number of former Soviet satellites in Eastern European are increasing military training. 

Washington is weighing sending troops and weapons to Ukraine, though Germany remains highly opposed to the idea. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier last week said a surge "might only take days to spark a crisis, but it could well take years to resolve it.” On Monday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel called on Europe to maintain sanctions on Russia.

Last week, US Vice President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko that the United States would supply an additional $75 million worth of non-lethal equipment like drones, counter-mortar radar and medical kits to Ukraine's armed forces. Moscow has warned the United States that sending weapons to Ukraine would escalate tensions. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian economy continues to struggle, even with a much needed $17.5 billion boost from the International Monetary Fund.

Russia has also aired a long documentary, "Crimea: The Road Home," on the annexation of Crimea. In an on-camera interview in the 2.5-hour long film, which aired Sunday on Russian state TV, Putin accused the Americans of being the "real puppet masters" behind the pro-Western Ukrainian government. The Wall Street Journal writes:

The documentary portrayed Crimea’s annexation as a heroic emancipation of the peninsula from an onslaught of Ukrainian extremists trained by U.S. puppeteers. The peninsula’s annexation last year helped drive the Russian leader’s popularity to all-time highs at home but led to the worst divide between the West and Russia since the days of the Cold War. “Our advantage—you know what it was?” Mr. Putin said. “It was that I did this myself. It’s not that I was doing everything so correctly, but that when heads of state direct something, it’s easier for those working to carry it out.”

Ukraine, a former Soviet state, has struggled to counter Russia's propaganda. The Economist calls it a mismatch in “information warfare” and writes:

Faced with a finely-tuned and well-funded Russian propaganda machine, truth and openness ought to be Ukraine’s most powerful weapons. But truth-telling is slow and painful work, and Kiev often opts for misinformation of its own instead. The Ukrainian authorities gloss over military losses, so much so that domestic observers now interpret the government's daily situation briefings as a euphemistic code: "14 [killed] means there was lots of fighting, two means it was a relatively quiet day," says Vitaly Sych, editor of Novoe Vremya, a weekly.

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