MOSCOW, March 19 (UPI) -- Russian President Vladimir Putin was among the 90,000 people at a Moscow rally celebrating the anniversary of Russia's annexation of Crimea. Putin addressed the Red Square rally Wednesday, looking healthy despite rumors that his recent 10-day absence from public view was caused by illness. He acknowledged the economic sanctions on Russia and on key Russian leaders. He also said that the punishment from the West for the takeover of Crimea from Ukraine, was "not fatal" but that it still "damage[d] our ongoing work."
The Crimean peninsula, Ukrainian territory since its 1991 independence from the Soviet Union, was ceded to Russia on March 18, 2014, in a treaty between Crimean and Russian leaders, two days after a referendum in which voters overwhelmingly approved the deal and several weeks after gunmen took over government buildings. The Russian Federal Assembly ratified the treaty on March 21. The quick annexation received global condemnation and is still regarded as an illegitimate territorial grab.
The festive anniversary rally, called "We're Together!" in celebration of "Crimea and Sevastopol's reunification with Russia," a reference to an important Crimean port, included rock bands and a speech by Putin.
"Friends! Exactly one year ago, Russia, which we are speaking of so much right now, and the Russian people showed amazing togetherness and patriotism in supporting the aspirations of the people of Crimea and Sevastopol to return to their native shores," he said, according to Russia's Presidential website. He added the celebration was in honor of "our history, our spirituality and our statehood, the things that make us a single people and single united nation," and pointedly noted Russians, Crimeans and Ukrainians were "one people."
Prior to the rally, Putin addressed a Kremlin meeting on Crimean development and thanked those involved in the Crimea takeover for "their bravery and the restraint they showed."
In a pre-recorded documentary television program broadcast on Russian state television earlier in the week, Putin acknowledged Russia planned the seizure of Crimea weeks before March 2014. The program suggested the overthrow of the Ukrainian government, which sent President Viktor Yanukovych into exile, was a rebellion organized by the United States and the Russian response was based on NATO's bombing of Serbia, a Russian ally, in 1999. NATO's involvement allowed Kosovo's Albanian majority to defeat Serb forces and establish an independent country.
Putin has regularly mentioned Kosovo as a model for Russia's takeover of Crimea, which has increased his standing and popularity within Russia despite a looming recession caused by the economic sanctions and a drop in the price of the country's largest export, oil.