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The Online Debate Over A Mysterious Russian 'Medal'

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol.

Armed men, believed to be Russian servicemen, walk outside a Ukrainian military base in Perevalnoye, near the Crimean city of Simferopol.

That the Russian Defense Ministry would present a medal to compatriots for "the return of Crimea" to Russia would not normally turn heads.

It is pictures of what is allegedly written on the back that have caused alarm.

Photos that originally appeared on the Facebook page of Volodimir Prosin, a historian and journalist from the Luhansk region of Ukraine, show what he claims is the backside of the medal. "For the Return of Crimea: February 20, 2014 - March 18, 2014," it says.

The end date makes sense -- on March 18, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a treaty annexing the territory. On February 20, however, ousted President Viktor Yanukovych was still in power, Russian troops were still relegated to their Black Sea fleets. And in Kyiv, on that date, over 60 antigovernment protesters were killed by snipers believed to be under the control of Yanukovych.

Putin has said the decision to support a referendum on Crimea took place only after a secret poll conducted after new authorities -- who he claims present a threat to Russian speakers -- took over in Kyiv on February 22.

We do not normally report on Internet rumors and we cannot confirm the photos, but the circumstances surrounding the medals drew our interest.

According to Rustem Adagamov, a well-known Russian blogger and photographer, pictures of a March 25 medal ceremony in Crimea, along with the frontside of the awards, were posted to the Russian Defense Ministry website, but then taken down on the same day.

And "Russian Ribbon," a ribbon-manufacturing company, claimed in a celebratory note, along with photos on its website, that it had been commissioned to "rush" and order the trimming to accompany the medals.

Evgeniy Levkovich, a journalist for the Russian-language edition of "Rolling Stone," claimed on Facebook that after a conversation with "Russian Ribbon's" general director he had determined that the February 20-dated medal was "not a fake."

Levkovich said the director, Vera Yolkina, told him that an order for the medals had come directly from the Defense Ministry.

In a conversation with RFE/RL though, Yolkina acknowledged that her company had agreed to manufacture the ribbons for the Defense Ministry, but said they had never actually seen the metal pieces that would accompany them.

"Only on the Internet did we see them," she said.

An official at Russia's Defense Ministry, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, denied altogether that such a medal existed.

"There has never been a liberation of Crimea," he said. "There was a referendum and the people decided."

-- Glenn Kates, Crimea Unit of RFE/RL's Ukrainian Service

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