By Polina Nikolskaya and Darya Korsunskaya
THE KERCH STRAIT/SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on Wednesday, touting his annexation of the peninsula to voters days before an election all but guaranteed to deliver him a second consecutive term in power.
Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine drew international condemnation and sanctions, but many Russians saw it as restoring Moscow’s rule over a region they regard as being historically Russian.
Appearing in front of a crowd of cheering supporters in the Crimean city of Sevastopol, Putin said that, four years ago, the people of Crimea took the historic decision to become part of Russia.
“With your decision, you restored historical justice which was violated in Soviet times when Crimea was torn away from Russia,” Putin said, referring to a 1954 decision to designate the peninsula part of the Ukrainian Soviet republic.
He said there was still work to be done to raise living standards in Crimea, but said: “When we are together we are a huge force able to resolve even the most difficult task.”
Ukraine’s government, and Western states, reject the Russian argument that the people of Crimea chose to join Russia, saying there was an armed occupation by Russian forces in violation of international law.
Earlier on Wednesday, Putin inspected work on a bridge that will link Russia to Crimea.
The 19-km (12-mile) road-and-rail bridge across the Kerch Strait, which some Russians have dubbed “Putin’s bridge”, is designed to integrate Crimea with Russia’s transport network, and show off Moscow’s largesse.
The bridge will be the longest dual-purpose span in Europe when completed. It is seen as vital by the Kremlin to integrate Crimea into Russia, both symbolically and as an economic lifeline for the region.
Putin, accompanied by officials in hard hats, was given a tour of the still-uncompleted central section of the bridge, and posted for photographs with workers.
“What you’ve done already is impressive,” Putin told workers in high-visibility jackets.
The Russian president, who projects an image of a demanding taskmaster, was told that the part of the bridge that will carry road traffic would be completed in December. A parallel rail bridge is also being built.
Putin proposed a different timetable, saying: “It would be good to do it in time for the vacation season.”
“We’ll do our best,” replied Arkady Rotenberg, the Kremlin-connected billionaire whose company Stroygazmontazh is building the bridge.
Rotenberg, Putin’s former judo sparring partner, told reporters later that the road part of the bridge would now open from May 9 – the day Russia celebrates the anniversary of victory over Nazi Germany in World War Two.
“The uniqueness of the bridge lies in the fact that everything here is Russian,” said Rotenberg, who is on U.S. and European sanctions blacklists that have made it difficult for his firm to import Western materials and technology.
Opinion polls show Putin is far ahead of his rivals in the run-up to Sunday’s presidential election, when he will be seeking a second consecutive term.
However, Kremlin officials are concerned voters may stay at home because they assume the result is a foregone conclusion, resulting in low turnout.
(This version of the story corrects third paragraph to say four years ago, not three)
(Writing by Katya Golubkova and Christian Lowe; Editing by Alison Williams)