Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday cracked a joke about Jews and money during a visit to Crimea, and also quipped about inviting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to the inauguration of a synagogue in the disputed peninsula.
Putin was marking the fifth anniversary of the Black Sea peninsula’s annexation from Ukraine, as NATO and the European Union once again strongly condemned the land grab by Russia.
During a meeting with residents that involved religious leaders, Putin responded to a comment by a local Jewish community member about financial difficulties.
“So the Jews have problems with finances!” he answered, to laughter. “Such a thing could only happen in Crimea.”
He then spoke in Hebrew, saying “thank you very much.”
Putin suggested inviting Netanyahu to visit for a ceremony unveiling a new synagogue in the region, and said he had invited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to attend the opening of a new mosque.
Speaking at an outdoor concert in Crimea’s regional capital of Simferopol, the Russian leader hailed Crimea’s residents, likening them to the Red Army soldiers of World War II.
“Russia has taken you into its fold with delight and joy,” he told the crowd. “We will fulfill all of our goals … because we are together now.”
Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 drew US and EU sanctions against Russia that hurt its economy, but the move boosted Putin’s popularity at home.
NATO allies said in a statement Monday that “we strongly condemn this act, which we do not and will not recognize.” They denounced alleged rights abuses including “arbitrary detentions, arrest, and torture” against members of the Crimean Tartar community and criticized Russia’s military buildup in Crimea.
Russia has beefed up its military in Crimea with new navy ships, missiles and warplanes. Viktor Bondarev, the head of the Russian upper house’s defense affairs committee, said the new weapons included Iskander-M missiles and Tu-22M3 long-range bombers.
The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry protested Putin’s visit to Crimea as a “crude violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”