Putin’s Ukraine military aspirations on display at Crimea concert following election victory

Putin’s Ukraine military aspirations on display at Crimea concert following election victory

MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin took to the Red Square stage Monday for an election celebration that seemed to carry a grander message for the flag-waving crowd of thousands, and for the world: Having extended his rule over Russia, his focus would be tightening his grip on Ukrainian territory.

“Together, hand in hand — we will move on,” he proclaimed after singing along to the national anthem, just hours after claiming a landslide win in a stage-managed election with no opposition.

Flanked by his favorite musical acts, pro-war celebrities and the three officially approved figures put on the ballot with him, he led this celebratory event to mark the 10th anniversary of his annexation of the Crimean Peninsula. Ukrainian officials told NBC News that the party was nothing but propaganda, and decried as illegal coercion the votes held for the first time in four newly annexed regions.

After three days of voting, Russia’s electoral commission said Putin had received 87% of the ballots, the biggest win of his political career, in what the Kremlin painted as an unequivocal public stamp of approval for his invasion of Ukraine, even though critics of the war were barred from running.

Just hours later, the Russian leader was in Red Square, where his face was beamed onto huge screens so that it could be seen from Lenin’s mausoleum and beyond.

From a stage beneath the colorful domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral, the music was at times as loud as thunder and the red-brick walls of the Kremlin flickered with the lights of the stage. The crowd — mostly students, some of whom said they had been given free tickets to the event — cheered and sang along as Russian stars performed patriotic ballads.

Mostly under 20 years old, many had their faces painted in the colors of the Russian flag. Putin, in power for the last 24 years, is the only leader they have ever known. They may be well into adulthood before seeing another.

“He has made Russia a lot better than it was,” Maksim Druzhinin, 18, said, speaking in English. Asked whether he expected to turn 30 before Putin might leave office, the teen, who is a student at the capital’s prestigious Higher School of Economics, said: “There is a question: Who else?”

Alexandra Volkova, an 18-year-old programming student, at Putin’s victory event. Natasha Lebedeva / NBC News

“He has been keeping the country together for many years,” said Alexandra Volkova, a programming student, speaking in Russian. “He is definitely the most reliable candidate out there,” the 18-year-old said.

Of course, the Kremlin’s crackdown on dissent means gauging public opinion in Russia is difficult. And this was an especially pro-Putin crowd, not filled with those who turned out at noon Sunday in a silent show of defiance called for by the opposition, or quietly resigned to life under Putin.

‘Crimea is not Russian’

Putin used the occasion to promise to extend the Russian railroad system all the way to occupied Crimea, as an alternative to the bridge connecting the peninsula to the Russian mainland that has come under frequent Ukrainian attacks.

The Russian leader also commended the people of Crimea for what he said was their dedication to Moscow.

“They are our pride,” Putin said. “They never separated themselves from Russia. And this is what allowed Crimea to return to our common family.”

That “return,” which boosted Putin’s approval ratings and set the course for Russia’s expansionism in the decade to follow, is considered an illegal land grab by most of the international community, rather than a historic homecoming.

Crimea, which is crucial to Russia’s naval power, has been used as a major hub and launchpad for the war against Ukraine, which has vowed to reclaim it along with all of its occupied territory and has increasingly targeted Russian military targets on the peninsula.

“Crimea is not Russian,” Tamila Tasheva, Kyiv’s permanent representative in Crimea, told NBC News. “Legally, the territory is Ukrainian. And this, by the way, is very clearly understood subconsciously in Russia itself, and that is why such ‘celebrations’ are held in order to convince themselves of the nonexistent,” she said of the event in Red Square.

Eight years after occupying Crimea, Russia annexed four other regions from Ukraine in 2022: Kherson and Zaporizhzhia in the south, as well as Donetsk and Luhansk in the east. Some of those regions are only partially controlled by Russian troops, though that didn’t stop the Kremlin from holding a vote that saw armed men at some polling stations.

Putin speaks to a crowd of supporters after his election victory at Red Square in Moscow on Monday night.Alexander Zemlianichenko / AP

The Russian electoral commission said that in four out of the five annexed regions, including Crimea, voters gave Putin more than 90% of the vote.

These results are “fictitious” and are devoid of any legitimacy while Ukrainians there who oppose the Kremlin continue to suffer at the hands of the Russians, said Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Tasheva dismissed the claimed results as “primitive propaganda.”

But for the Kremlin, the message of the three-day election, and its Monday night celebration, was clear. Ukraine will have to fight to keep hold of its territory, with Putin’s eyes now set firmly beyond the Red Square stage to the battlefields that will define his legacy.

Keir Simmons and Natasha Lebedeva reported from Moscow, and Yuliya Talmazan from London.

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