SEVASTOPOL, CRIMEA - Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday thanked residents of Crimea for voting to annex the peninsula from Ukraine in 2014, calling the move "real democracy" in a speech days ahead of Sunday's presidential election.
"With your decision you restored historical justice," he told the crowd of supporters in Sevastopol, home to the Black Sea Fleet's base.
"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 future of your children," Putin said.
In a rallying call, he said there were still things to improve in Crimea, but "we will definitely do everything, because when we are together, we are a huge force that can resolve the most difficult problems."
Putin is running for a historic fourth term in a poll all but guaranteed to hand him another mandate.
His visit to Crimea also included a stop at the construction site of a massive bridge linking the peninsula to Russia and a look at a new airport terminal.
Police said about 40,000 people attended Putin's short speech, having to wait first for several hours to listen to patriotic songs.
An AFP correspondent at the scene put the crowd at nearer 20,000.
Putin's stop at Sevastopol's main Nakhimov square was seen as his last campaign event before the country votes.
The annexation of Crimea in March 2014 was slammed by the international community and led to sanctions against Moscow but is celebrated by most Russians and resulted in a major boost of Putin's popularity at the time.
After Putin's speech, the U.S. State Department reacted with a statement titled starkly: "Crimea is Ukraine."
"In his campaign rally in Crimea today, President Putin reiterated Russia's false claims to Ukrainian territory in another open admission that the Russian government disdains the international order and disrespects the territorial integrity of sovereign nations," spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.
Russian authorities scheduled the election for March 18 to mark exactly four years since Putin signed a treaty with representatives from Crimea to make it a part of Russia.
Ahead of the vote, authorities are presenting the annexation as a major legacy of Putin's current term, with Moscow's Mayor Sergei Sobyanin warning recently that failing to endorse Putin on Sunday would amount to opposing the move.