Russian President Vladimir Putin recently disappeared from public life for 10 days. But on Wednesday he took the stage in Moscow to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula – and even sang along with the crowd to the Russian national anthem as rock bands and Russian singers performed.
The celebration was, by itself, an act of defiance directed at Western powers, including the European Union and the United States, which view the Russian takeover of Ukraine as a serious breach of international law. Yet rather than just thumb his nose at the international community by celebrating the takeover in Red Square, Putin took things a few steps further.
The Russian Northern Fleet, put on alert this week as part of a massive war games exercise, was joined by additional units of the Russian armed forces – which together formed an increasingly large show of force that has stretched across the breadth of the Russian Federation.
Most surprisingly, Putin deployed bombers capable of carrying nuclear weapons to Crimea, and delivered nuclear capable missile systems to the Russia-controlled Kaliningrad enclave on the Baltic Sea.
The decision to send nuclear capable bombers to Crimea is not, at this point, surprising. Since last year, various high-ranking Russian officials have publicly pressed the case that Russia is within its rights to do so.
The decision to deploy nuclear-capable missiles to Kaliningrad feels a bit more provocative. This is particularly so after a Russian government-backed documentary that aired this week featured Putin asserting that he had been prepared to put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert if Western nations reacted more aggressively to the invasion.
Kaliningrad is a somewhat remarkable artifact of the Cold War. Legally a part of Russia, Kaliningrad Oblast is just under 6,000 square miles of land sandwiched between Poland on the South and Lithuania on the east. It has access to the Baltic Sea, but no direct overland connection to Russia proper that doesn’t cross the borders of at least two other countries.
It is also hundreds of miles closer to European capitals, such as Warsaw, Berlin, and Prague, than any other territory controlled by Russia. That makes the decision to send nuclear-capable missiles there something Russia’s neighbors will watch closely, and likely with alarm.
Putin, for his part, was an enthusiastic participant in Wednesday’s celebrations in Moscow.
“We understood that in terms of Crimea it was not a matter of just some territory, however strategically important it is,” he said. “It was a matter of millions of Russian people, our compatriots, who needed our help and support.”
Putin delivered those remarks shortly before taking the stage and singing the national anthem into a microphone next to longtime Russian pop star Larisa Dolina. The event drew an estimated 110,000 people.
Not long afterward, officials in Lithuania said, fighter pilots with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization intercepted a group of Russian fighter jets and transport aircraft. The aircraft were flying – with identifying transponders deactivated – close to the borders of NATO member state Latvia.
Top Reads from The Fiscal Times