People take part in a rally and a concert by the Kremlin wall in central Moscow on March 18, 2015, to mark one year since Russia's President Vladimir Putin signed off on the annexation of Crimea. (Dmitry Serebryakov/AFP/Getty Images)

On the first anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula, Russians celebrated Wednesday while Ukrainians vowed that the Black Sea territory would eventually return to their control.

Thousands of Russians rallied around their nation to mark an event that spurred a wave of national pride and international condemnation. In the year since Russian President Vladimir Putin solemnly declared that Crimea was Russian territory, his approval ratings have soared to record highs.

Many Russians have recaptured a self-respect that they lost with the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. But that pride has been tied to a confrontation with the West that has cost thousands of lives in eastern Ukraine and tested modern Russia’s global ties as never before.

In front of a cheering crowd alongside the Kremlin, Putin told the nation Wednesday that Russians would grow only stronger as they plunged into the future. He said any attempt to thwart their country was “pointless.”

He reached deep into Russian history to praise his fellow citizens for actions to support a territory that he said was vital to Russian statehood.

A massive crowd celebrated the anniversary of Crimea’s annexation by Russia in Moscow's Red Square with President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday. (Reuters)

“A year ago today, Russia and the Russian people demonstrated an amazing focus and amazing patriotism by helping the people of Crimea and Sevastopol to return to their home shores,” Putin said.

“We are talking not simply about territory,” he said in brief remarks that were beamed live across the country. “We are talking about historical roots, the sources of our spirituality and statehood.”

“Russia has always believed that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. I still think so now,” he said.

Russians packed an area that leads from Red Square down to the Moscow River, waving their nation’s red-blue-and-white flag and carrying signs that said “Russia and Crimea, together forever.” Others held heart-shaped balloons with Putin’s face taped on them.

On a warm workday afternoon, crowds were sparser than at previous, similar rallies, and cheers were subdued, except for Putin’s brief appearance. But people still backed up onto the bridge across the Moscow River where opposition politician Boris Nemtsov was assassinated two-and-a-half weeks ago.

Nemtsov had been one of Russia’s loudest critics of the annexation, which came after the ouster of Ukraine’s pro-Russian president, Viktor Yanukovych. In the hours after Yanukovych’s February 2014 departure, Putin set in motion a plan to fan Russian special forces across the Crimean region, where pro-Moscow separatists seized power before holding a disputed referendum. Putin had long been unhappy that Crimea had remained part of Ukraine following the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

For centuries, the peninsula had been part of the Russian Empire. Putin has compared 2014 to 1783, the year that Catherine the Great established the seat of the Russian navy in the Crimean city of Sevastopol.

“It was the reunification of a people,” said Zlata Krechitova, 37, who came to the Kremlin rally with a friend. “We have so many friends and relatives in Crimea. We are the same people, really.”

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on Wednesday said that “Crimea is and will always be Ukrainian.” He has vowed that his nation will regain control of the peninsula.

After the annexation, the conflict expanded to parts of eastern Ukraine, where more than 6,000 people have now been killed after nearly a year of fighting. Separatists in eastern Ukraine seized government buildings and slowly spread their control over parts of Ukraine’s industrial heartland — aided, Ukraine and its Western allies say, by Russian forces.

Efforts have been made to calm the fighting, but the latest fragile cease-fire was coming under increased strain on Wednesday, as pro-Russian rebels accused Kiev of violating a plan to give them significantly increased autonomy.

The dispute risked casting war-torn eastern Ukraine back into a hot conflict after more than three weeks of relative peace. Rebels on Wednesday accused Ukraine’s parliament of passing a law a day earlier that they said reneges on the terms of the peace deal. Fighting on the ground has significantly increased in recent days.

The law would offer residents of rebel-held territory sweeping powers of self-determination, but only after they held local elections in accordance with Ukrainian law. Rebels had already agreed to fresh elections, but they said the polls could be held only after Ukraine enshrines their autonomy in law.

“The conclusion is obvious: Kiev does not need peace. It seeks to destroy Donbas by violence and economic siege,” rebel leaders Alexander Zakharchenko and Igor Plonitsky said in a joint statement, using a local name for the Donets Basin region that is under their control.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Wednesday that the Ukrainian actions were a “violation” of the cease-fire plan hammered out last month.

Ukrainian leaders, meanwhile, said they would offer autonomy to their eastern regions on their terms, not Russia’s.

The parliament voted “to conduct fair and transparent elections, not to legitimize Russian mobsters through elections by Russian standards,” Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said Wednesday.

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