Crimea is Russia’s Temple Mount, Putin says

President describes annexation of the peninsula in spiritual terms; Ukraine says it arrested rebel mercenaries from Israel, elsewhere

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to deliver his annual address at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 4, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Ria-Novosti/Pool/Alexei Druzhinin)
Russian President Vladimir Putin arrives to deliver his annual address at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 4, 2014 (photo credit: AFP/Ria-Novosti/Pool/Alexei Druzhinin)

In an annual speech ranging from economy to school tests, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday evoked religious imagery and defended the Kremlin’s aggressive foreign policy as necessary for his country’s sheer survival.

Putin, in his annual state-of-the-nation address at the Grand Kremlin Palace, defended the annexation of Crimea, describing it as Russia’s spiritual ground, “our Temple Mount,” and added that national pride and sovereignty are “a necessary condition for survival” of Russia.

Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in March following the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych and was later accused of supplying pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine with ammunition and manpower.

Citing tradition that the peninsula was the site where Russians accepted Christianity in the 10th century, Putin said Crimea had “an enormous civilizational and sacral significance. The same as the Temple on the Mount in Jerusalem for those people who worship Islam or Judaism,” according to a Buzzfeed translation.

“If for many European countries, sovereignty and national pride are forgotten concepts and a luxury, then for the Russian Federation a true sovereignty is an absolutely necessary condition of its existence,” he told a full room of Cabinet ministers, lawmakers and community leaders. “I want to stress: either we will be sovereign, or we will dissolve in the world. And, of course, other nations must understand this as well.”

Meanwhile, Ukraine said it had detained mercenaries from Israel, Serbia, Spain, Italy and Brazil. Ukraine’s military added that it was fighting more than 30,000 rebel soldiers in the east of the country — including up to 10,000 Russians.

“Today in the territory of Donbass, there are 32,400 fighters, of which 6,000 to 10,000 are Russian armed forces. All the rest are mercenaries and members of the so-called illegal paramilitary groups,” said Ukraine military spokesman Oleksandr Rozmaznin, according to Interfax Ukraine.

More than 4,300 people have been killed in eastern Ukraine in what the West and the Ukrainian government says is a conflict fueled by Russian money.

Putin once again expressed his displeasure over the toppling of Ukrainian Presidential Viktor Yanukovych but offered no insight into what Russia’s next actions in eastern Ukraine could be.

Although Russia is boosting its national defense budget Putin said it is not going to get involved in an expensive arms race. He said unspecified “unusual solutions” are at the nation’s disposal.

“No one will succeed in defeating Russia militarily,” he said. “They would have been delighted to let us go the way of Yugoslavia and the dismemberment of the Russian peoples, with all the tragic consequences. But it did not happen. We did not allow it to happen.”

Moscow-based analyst Maria Lipman said that despite bellicose statements toward the West in the beginning of his speech, Putin “also spoke about how we are by no means going to isolate ourselves, we are interested in constructive work even with Europeans and Americans.”

Striking a decidedly liberal note, the Russian president also announced measures to spur the flagging economy, saying that Russia’s resurgent “geopolitical role” should be matched by a thriving economy.

Russia is expected to enter recession next year, for the first time in six years.

Putin suggested a three-year freeze on impromptu inspections and tax checks for companies with a clean record, and said there should be no taxation of offshore money returning to Russia.

Putin praised the work of the Central Bank, which moved to free float the ruble this year even though the currency hit a record low on Wednesday.

Lipman said that Putin was trying to reassure both the liberal and conservative camps in the government, but realizes his hands are tied by economic factors.

“I think his freedom of maneuver is limited now and many important economic factors no longer depend on him: the ruble rate, the price of oil, inflation,” she said.

Putin did not dwell on rising consumer prices or an expected decline in living standards but instead sought to portray the harsh economic environment as a necessary obstacle for patriotic Russians to overcome.

“This year, as in many fateful historical moments, our people clearly displayed national revival, firm resistance, and patriotism,” he said. “And the difficulties we encountered will create new opportunities for us, we are ready to accept any challenge of our time and be victorious.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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