Russian President Vladimir Putin has thanked the residents of the annexed Crimean Peninsula, saying a 2014 referendum that led Moscow to seize the Black Sea region was "real democracy."
Putin made the comments on March 14, four days ahead of Russia's presidential election, in a move that Ukraine's president called an "extremely dangerous provocation" and which drew sharp criticism from the U.S. State Department.
The March 18 Russian presidential vote coincides with the fourth anniversary of the Russia's illegal annexation of the Ukrainian region.
"With your decision you restored historical justice," he told a crowd in the historic naval port of Sevastopol.
"With your decision, you showed the whole world what is real, rather than sham democracy, you came to the referendum and made a decision, you voted for your future and the future of your children," he said.
Before arriving in Crimea, Putin visited the construction site of a bridge that is meant to link the peninsula with Russian territories across the Kerch Strait. Construction of the bridge started in 2016.
Putin, who is widely popular and enjoys glowing coverage on state-run TV, is expected to easily win over eight other candidates on the ballot in the March 18 election.
Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, meanwhile, called Putin's visit to Crimea "an extremely dangerous provocation." He urged the European Union to impose sanctions against "those who organized Russian presidential election events on a Ukrainian territory."
The U.S. State Department on March 14 blasted Putin's comments and reaffirmed its support for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity.
"Four years ago this week, Russia held an illegitimate, fabricated 'referendum' in Ukraine in a futile attempt to legitimize its purported annexation of Ukrainian territory," Heather Nauert, the acting undersecretary for public diplomacy and public affairs, said in a statement.
"In light of Putin's remarks, it is important to call attention to the illegitimacy of the staged 'referendum,' but also to the tremendous human costs the Russian government has imposed on the people of Crimea."
"Russian occupation authorities have subjected Crimean Tatars, ethnic Ukrainians, pro-Ukrainian activists, civil society members, and independent journalists to politically motivated prosecution and ongoing repression, while methodically suppressing nongovernmental organizations and independent media outlets," she added.
Putin's government seized control of Crimea in March 2014 after months of street protests erupted in violent clashes in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv. The violence led to then-President Viktor Yanukovych fleeing the country.
Russia sent troops without insignia to Crimea and orchestrated the takeover of government agencies, before holding the referendum on March 16, a move that was denounced by the UN Security Council and General Assembly. The referendum was deemed illegitimate by at least 100 countries.
Russian lawmakers last year moved the date of the presidential election from March 11 to March 18.