Sevastopol: Crimea kicked off celebrations on Monday to mark one year since a controversial vote that led to Russia's annexation of the peninsula, a historic shift blasted by the West and Ukraine as an illegal takeover.
Fireworks and concerts were planned in the Black Sea peninsula for the festivities a year after the controversial poll saw residents vote under the watchful eye of elite Russian troops in unmarked uniforms who had swarmed key sites in Crimea two weeks earlier.
Pro-Russian authorities said nearly 97 percent of Crimeans voted to leave Ukraine and become part of Russia in the hastily-organised referendum, but with no independent observers allowed the poll was widely dismissed abroad.
Two days later Putin signed a treaty incorporating Crimea into Russia, sending his ties with the West into a tailspin but boosting his popularity at home to record highs that official statistics said hit 88 percent last week.
As the red, white and blue Russian flag fluttered throughout the peninsula on Monday, the European Union criticised the growing militarisation of Crimea, the home of Russia's Black Sea fleet, under Moscow rule.
"One year after the holding of an illegal and illegitimate referendum of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia, the European Union is firmly committed to the territorial integrity of Ukraine," EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said in a statement.
In a documentary broadcast on Sunday Putin presented himself as the saviour of Crimea forced to deploy troops to prevent a war with "nationalists" in Kiev. He also said that at the time he had prepared to put his nuclear forces on alert in case of western intervention.
The film showed the lengths he was willing to go to in Crimea after pro-western protesters in Kiev deposed Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovych in a street revolt.
"I think no one was in the mood to start a world war," he said, hailing the work of thousands of special forces, land, air and sea troops who intervened in Crimea.
A year ago, he denied the men in unmarked uniforms were Russian troops.
The annexation of Crimea was a critical event in the Ukrainian crisis which many believed triggered the separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine where over 6,000 have since been killed in fighting.
The Kremlin has denied accusations it has troops in eastern Ukraine and that it is arming the rebels.
In the documentary, Putin insisted his takeover of Crimea had prevented the bloodshed seen in eastern Ukraine.
"The choice was obvious: Ukraine, blood and war, or Russia, peace and stability," Crimea's leader Sergei Aksyonov said in a speech to officials in the regional capital of Simferopol today.