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By Sergei L. Loiko, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday defended Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and implied that the “strategically important” peninsula will remain part of Russia “from now and forever.”

In his State of the Union address, delivered in the Kremlin, Putin called a controversial March referendum in Crimea, which backed breaking away from Ukraine, and the local parliament’s decision to join Russia “absolutely legitimate” even though thousands of Russian troops in unmarked uniforms had earlier in the month already taken control of most of the peninsula and were effectively blocking all Ukrainian army and navy bases.

Putin called “the reunification” of Russia and Crimea a historic event.

“For our country, for our people this event has a special meaning, because our people live in Crimea and the territory itself is strategically important,” Putin said. “It was here in Crimea in ancient Khersones, or Korsun as the chroniclers called it, that Count Vladimir was baptized (in the 10th century) to then baptize the rest of Rus.”

Putin added that the historic landmarks of Crimea have “a sacred meaning” for Russians, as important “as the Temple Mount in Jerusalem for those who profess Islam and Judaism.”

At these words the audience — consisting of lawmakers, officials and clergy — broke into long applause.

Putin said Russia has always supported Ukraine’s sovereignty but he denounced “the state coup, the armed capture of power in Kiev last February,” when former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovich was forced from power in the wake of mass protests of his decision to forgo an economic deal with the European Union in favor of closer ties with Russia.

“We see today in Ukraine that the tragedy in its southeast completely proves the righteousness of our position,” he said, referring to the region’s continued conflict between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia separatists.

Officials in Kiev, Washington and European capitals charge that the separatists are supported by Moscow, but Putin on Thursday again blamed the West, namely the United States, for interfering and inciting violence in Ukraine.

“It is not for nothing that I mention our American friends, as they directly or from behind the wings always influence our relations with our neighbors,” Putin said. “Sometimes you don’t even know who it is best to talk with: to the governments of some countries or directly with their U.S. guardians and sponsors.”

Putin didn’t mention reported Russian military involvement in the fighting in eastern Ukraine, laying the blame for the violence completely on Kiev and its “sponsors.” However, NATO officials say they have more than once observed Russian armed convoys crossing the unprotected border into Ukraine.

Russia continues to support Ukraine’s economy despite the strained relations with Kiev, Putin said.

Since the revolution in Ukraine began in November 2013, Russia has invested over $32 billion in direct credits and natural gas supplies, the Russian leader said.

Putin called Western governments’ economic sanctions against Russia “a nervous reaction of the United States and its allies to our position” on Ukraine. For its part, Russia announced that it is banning the import of U.S. poultry beginning Friday, RIA Novosti reported Thursday.

In Cold War-style rhetoric, Putin also charged that the Western sanctions are just a pretext to prevent Russia from expanding its influence in the world.

“Every time somebody thinks that Russia has become too strong and independent, these instruments are immediately applied,” he said. “However, it is senseless to speak to Russia from a position of force.”

In the end of the passage, Putin compared the Western efforts to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler’s attempts to bring Russia down.

“Even Hitler, given all his misanthropic ideas, failed in his attempts to destroy Russia and push us beyond the Ural Mountains,” Putin said. “Everybody should remember how this ends.”

Putin also again blamed the United States for withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Russia and for trying to create an ABM system in Europe close to Russian borders.

“No one will ever achieve a military supremacy over Russia,” Putin charged. “Our army is modern and combat-ready. As they say now, it is polite but powerful. We will have enough forces, will and fortitude to protect our freedom.”

Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his annual state of the nation address at the Kremlin in Moscow, on December 4, 2014 (AFP/Alexei Nikolsky)

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