The same day that the Russian president was the focus of international outrage over the chemical attack on a spy in Britain, Putin came to the site of another event that drew Western furor: Crimea. With a presidential election looming Sunday in which the Kremlin appears to be banking on high turnout to legitimize a fourth six-year term for Putin, Wednesday’s rally in the Black Sea port city of Sevastopol was his chance to re-energize Russian voters on the site of what many of them see as his greatest triumph.
Posters across the city touted Wednesday’s rally and concert, marking the fourth anniversary of what people here rarely refer to as Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Nationally known musicians took turns crooning patriotic songs; pop singer Vika Tsiganova premiered a new one simply called “Russia.” A prominent mural in the city shows Putin steering a ship with the caption “Here’s to returning to the home port!”
But if anyone was expecting a rousing speech from Putin about patriotism and unity after thousands of supporters waited for hours in a central square to see him, the president had other plans. He spoke for two minutes.
“I am sending you all hugs,” Putin concluded. “See you soon.”
Putin has shown little interest in campaigning, even though the state is investing millions of dollars in raising awareness of Sunday’s vote. There are presidential debates on national television, but Putin doesn’t participate in them.
Would-be campaign events like Wednesday’s further highlight the incongruity of Russia’s democratic-in-appearance but autocratic-in-fact political system. While the government sometimes goes to great lengths to boost and solidify support from the public at large, Putin himself often acts as though he doesn’t need to.
“Yes, my dear friends, we still have a lot to do to develop both Sevastopol and Crimea as a whole,” Putin told the crowd. “These are long-term matters, we are working on them, and we will keep on working until we see them through, because when we are together, we are a great force capable of solving the most complicated challenges.”
Nearly all of the world still recognizes the peninsula of Crimea, home to about 2 million people and legendary cliffs and beaches, as part of Ukraine. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko called Putin’s visit to Crimea on Wednesday an “extremely dangerous provocation,” according to news reports.
But for Putin, this was home turf. Many locals, who are predominantly Russian speakers, looked to him as a savior in early 2014 amid reports in the Russian news media that the pro-Western revolution in Kiev was a fascist, anti-Russian coup. On Wednesday, he repeated that the referendum in favor of joining Russia that was held on the peninsula in March 2014 represented “real democracy” — even though it was held after Russian military forces had already taken control of the region.
Four years after the annexation, residents of Crimea grouse about higher food prices and limited commercial services because of international sanctions. Many still hold out hope that the situation will improve, in particular if a new multibillion-dollar bridge to connect Crimea with the Russian mainland opens by the end of the year as planned. Putin toured the construction site before Wednesday’s rally and, as TV cameras rolled, encouraged construction workers to hurry up and finish by May instead.
But the most important argument for joining Russia, Putin’s backers say, is that civil war or even mass murder of Russians would have been the alternative. One of the sisters on the streetside bench after the rally, Lyudmila Gomozova, said it was Putin who “kept NATO out.”
“My kids can go to school safely, and that already means a lot,” said Olga Boychenko, 35, a shopkeeper. “We’re not being bombed, and we’re not being cut down.”
Boychenko, who lives in a resort town four hours away, said she rode to the rally in a convoy of three buses organized by the ruling United Russia party.
There was little concern for Russia’s growing international isolation in the crowd, let alone the consequences of Britain’s allegations of Russian involvement in the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal.
“There are many things we don’t understand,” said Maria Pustovaya, a 64-year-old retired engineer. “We, of course, believe what Russia says.”