Moscow - President Vladimir Putin's elevation of Crimea to the status of Russia's Holy Land has prompted puzzlement and scorn from historians and commentators in Russia and abroad.
Defending Russia's annexation of Crimea, he called "the reunification" of Russia and Crimea a historic event, turning to ancient history to bolster his argument.
"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," he said. "It was here in Crimea in ancient Khersones, or Korsun as the chroniclers called it, that Count Vladimir was baptised (in the 10th century), to then baptise the rest of Russia."
"Prince Vladimir was Kievan, not Muscovite, and this probably only underlines the right of Kiev and not Moscow to Crimea," Andrei Zubov, a Russian historian and political scientist, said. Historians argue over whether Vladimir was baptised in Vasilev, near Kiev, rather than Kherson, said Dr Zubov, who lost his post at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations in March, after he compared Mr Putin's takeover of Crimea to Nazi leader Adolf Hitler's annexation of Austria in 1938.
Mr Putin's interpretation of Crimean history adds a religious aspect to Russia's confrontation with the United States and the European Union after it annexed the peninsula from Ukraine in March. In his speech, Mr Putin called Crimea's March referendum, which backed breaking away from Ukraine, and its Parliament's decision to join Russia "absolutely legitimate", though thousands of Russian troops in unmarked uniforms had taken control of most of the territory earlier in the month and were in effect blocking all Ukrainian army and naval bases.
Since then, EU and US sanctions have helped push the Russian economy to the brink of recession as it wrestles with a 39 per cent slump in the value of the rouble against the dollar this year and a one-third decline in the oil price. Russia depends on oil and gas revenue for about half of its federal budget.
Mr Putin's speech has sparked religious as well as historical debate in Russia. From a religious viewpoint, Kiev was a much more important place for Russian Orthodox pilgrims than Crimea, Deacon Andrei Kuraev, a theologian and a popular Russian blogger, said. It was incorrect to compare Crimea with the Temple Mount, the world's holiest place for Jews, he said.
Igor Danilevsky, head of historical research methods at Moscow's Higher School of Economics, also said Mr Putin's comparison of Crimea with Jerusalem was not a very successful move to justify Russia's actions.
Meanwhile, US Secretary of State John Kerry said on Thursday hundreds of Russian soldiers had been fighting and dying inside Ukraine. It was the first time he had spoken so pointedly about the Russian military's casualty toll in the east. His comments, at a meeting of the Organisation of Security and Co-operation in Europe, appeared calculated to puncture the Kremlin's carefully crafted narrative that Russian forces have not intervened in the conflict.
Kerry repeated longstanding Western allegations that Russia has continued to funnel weapons to separatists in eastern Ukraine and failed to honour the peace agreement it negotiated and signed in Minsk, Belarus, in September. He went on to discuss the cost to Russia in terms of Russian lives lost.
"The result is damage to its credibility, and its own citizens wind up paying a steep economic and human price, including the price of hundreds of Russian soldiers who fight and die in a country where they had and have no right to be," he said.
Mr Kerry did not give a number for Russian military deaths in Ukraine, but senior US officials have estimated that at least 400 Russian soldiers have died there. Russia has refused to acknowledge that it has ordered forces into Ukraine or that its military has suffered significant casualties in the peninsula.
Bloomberg, Los Angeles Times, New York Times,
KEY WORDS: Putin, Crimea, Temple Mount, Jews, Christiana Russia, Kremlin