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Russia reclaims Crimea as its own

Russia's President Vladimir Putin spoke during a rally to celebrate the incorporation of Crimea at the Red Square in Moscow.

ALEXEI NIKOLSKYALEXEI NIKOLSKY/AFP/Getty Images

Russia's President Vladimir Putin spoke during a rally to celebrate the incorporation of Crimea at the Red Square in Moscow.

LUHANSK, Ukraine — Sweeping away Western objections, President Vladimir Putin reunited Crimea with Russia on Tuesday, asserting that Russian land torn away by the mistakes of Communists had been returned to its rightful place on the map.

In an impassioned address broadcast live from the Kremlin’s ornate St. George Hall and watched closely on both sides of Ukraine’s east-west divide, Putin dismissed European and American criticism of Sunday’s Crimean referendum as evidence of NATO’s double standards. He also hailed the decision of voters in the Black Sea peninsula to secede from Ukraine and join Russia.

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‘‘In people’s hearts and minds, Crimea has always been an integral part of Russia,” Putin said of the region, which was Russian territory until it was transferred to Ukraine by Soviet leader Nikita
Khruschev in 1954. “This firm conviction, based on truth and justice, was unshakable and passed from generation to generation.’’

Putin also suggested that secession-minded eastern Ukraine, dominated by Russian speakers, belonged in Russia. Ukraine’s borders, he said, were drawn up by the Bolsheviks without regard for the “regions of Russia’s historic south” they incorporated. Nonetheless, Putin insisted Russia has no plans to further divide Ukraine.

This did not reassure Ukraine’s new government, which has dispatched troops and tanks to its eastern border, where Russia has massed thousands of troops and hundreds of tanks.

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‘‘Today’s statement by Putin showed in high relief what a real threat Russia is for the civilized world and international security,’’ Ukrainian Foreign Ministry spokesman Evhen Perebinis said on Twitter. Crimea, he said, “has nothing to do with law or with democracy or sensible thinking.’’

In Poland, Vice President Joe Biden warned that the United States and Europe will impose further sanctions against Moscow. ‘‘The world has seen through Russia’s actions and has rejected the flawed logic,’’ Biden said.

But Putin’s logic played well in Sevastopol, Crimea, home of Russia’s Black Sea fleet. Crowds cheered and waved Russian flags while watching the president on a large screen in the city center.

In a 40-minute address frequently interrupted by applause, Putin equated the justification for Crimea’s referendum with NATO’s support for Kosovo’s independence from Serbia in 1999 based on what the alliance called the right for self-determination. Ukraine’s government, Putin argued, was installed illegally during street fighting that ousted the legally elected president in February, and driven by radical ‘‘nationalists, neo-Nazis, Russophobes, and anti-Semites.’’

Western nations have said Crimean voters were held at gunpoint by a force of more than 20,000 Russian troops that took control of the peninsula two weeks before the referendum, blockading Ukrainian soldiers.

Putin’s speech — and formal action — capped a remarkably fast annexation of the Crimean peninsula that has taken place over two weeks. Throughout, Putin has all but ignored objections by US and European allies.

Until Tuesday, that occupation had been largely peaceful. But Ukraine’s military said that an officer was killed when Russians attacked a Ukrainian base in Crimea.

Concerned by Putin’s assertion that Russia would act to protect millions of Russians living within Ukraine’s borders, the Kiev government in Ukraine has been trying to shore up its own defenses. But its army has encountered an obstacle that highlights the difficulty Ukraine would have defending its territory: Russian speakers who inhabit it would rather see Russia run it.

In Vilkhovskaya, a tiny village in the southeastern border region of Luhansk, residents piled debris on a railway two days ago rather than allow a train to unload Ukrainian army tanks. “We don’t want any war, we don’t want any tanks here,” said a woman who gave only her first name, Yelena, because police have sought the arrest of anyone involved in theaction — and, she said, everyone in the town turned out. “We’re not against Ukraine, we’re all from Ukraine, but we don’t believe in that government.”

However, if the Russian army were to come in, Yelena and two friends at the Vilkhovskaya station said they would welcome them.

In the neighboring border region of Donetsk, Sergey Taruta, a metals tycoon who was named governor of the restive area by the new government, said the border with Russia had been bolstered with trenches and concrete barriers. “No one and nothing will pass,” Taruta said. For a while Monday, he could have been speaking of his own troops, as pro-Russia activists set up roadblocks to prevent Ukrainian army armored vehicles from traveling to the border.

Donetsk has been the site of several violent demonstrations by protesters calling for greater autonomy within Ukraine. Since the Crimea vote, many in eastern Ukraine want their own referendum on whether to secede and join Russia.

Over the weekend, pro-Russian protesters broke into the prosecutor general’s office, the Ukrainian Security Agency headquarters, and Taruta’s own business office.

During the protests, police held their ground only until protesters pushed, and then quickly yielded. Also, during a march on the central square of Donetsk, when protestors decided to take to the streets and march on government buildings, police not only failed to prevent them, they cleared the way by redirecting traffic.

Angered by the attacks, Taruta ordered his police to use all the weapons at their disposal to prevent further incursions during rallies he said were illegal.

More police took up positions in front of a central government building in Donetsk on Monday. But many of them were teens fresh from the academy, or, judging from their uniforms, still in it.

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. David Filipov can be reached at David.Filipov@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davidfilipov.
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