Updated at 10:54,14-11-2017

Bruce Bucknell. Remember Crimea

Bruce BUCKNELL, UK Ambassador in Belarus. Naviny.by

A year ago, the Kremlin helped stage an illegal and illegitimate referendum in Crimea that culminated in Russia annexing Crimea from Ukraine, redrawing the map of Europe by force, and deepening the burgeoning crisis in east Ukraine.

Crimea is a special place for me. Three years ago, I spent two months studying Russian near Yalta. I had the opportunity to visit many beautiful and fascinating places: the ancient Greek remains at Khersones; the deserted hill top town of Chufut Kale and nearby cemeteries of the Karaim community; and Chekhovs domik in Yalta and his villa inGurzuf. I enjoyed eating at the Tatarski restaurants on the hill tops near the peak of Ai-Petri. The limestone landscape of the hills around Yalta particularly beautiful.

The so-called referendum, hastily prepared in just two weeks, was a mockery of democracy.There were no independent, international monitors. Instead elite Russian troops the little green men, as locals labelled them enforced President Putins will on the ground. We should not be under any illusions about the origin of these fighters. Their kit, their accents and their training all showed them to be Russian, even if their identifying insignia had been stripped.

In the run up to the so-called referendum, Ukrainian terrestrial televisionstations were shut off in Crimea and anyone who spoke out against Russias military occupation facedintimidation and threats. Since then, several have disappeared and othershave been found dead, one showing signs of torture.

All of this was done under the false claim from the Russian leadershipthat the rights of Russian-speakers in Crimea were under threat from Kyiv. This cynical ploy bore no credence whatsoever.

In fact, just last week Vladimir Putin admitted in an interview that he planned the annexation of Crimea weeks before the sham referendum took place. All the while, he was telling the international community that he was not considering the possibility of Crimea joining Russia and denying the presence of Russian troops.

We know that there was never any threat to Russian speakersin Crimea or any other part of Ukraine. Shortly before the annexation, the OSCE High Commissioner for National Minorities said there was no evidence of any violence or threats.

In reality, reports by the United Nations, the Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Council of Europes Commissioner for Human Rightshave made clear that it was only after Russian occupation that human rights came under threat in Crimea. The effects have been especially felt by Crimeas ethnic minorities such as the sizeable Crimean Tatar community.

It is vital that the significance of Crimeas annexation is not downplayed. Russias aggressive actions there and in the Donbas are not only a threat to Ukraine but also to the rest of Europe.

By annexing Ukraines land, violating its territorial integrity, and destabilising east Ukraine with a steady supply of troops and weaponry Russia has challenged the 21st century democratic order and ripped up the international rulebook.

These actions are a flagrant violation of a number of Russias international commitments, including under the UN Charter, the OSCE Helsinki Final Act and the 1997 Partition Treaty on the Status and Conditions of the Black Sea Fleet with Ukraine. This is why Russia has been isolated in the Security Council and in the wider international community.

As a result, all EU member states must rise to the challenge that Russias actions pose to our shared values and our common security.No country, however large, can flout international norms and not face the consequences.

We must not accept Russias illegal annexation of Crimea as a new reality. The facts remain that this was an illegal act, Crimea remains occupied and its most vulnerable citizens are bearing the brunt of Russias illiberal policies.

The sad reality is that if Russia had not occupied Crimea last year and forced its people to vote at the point of a gun, people in Crimea would today be going about their business peacefully, as for the last 23 years, without the intimidation, hardship and physical danger that comes with illegal Russian annexation.

There is a way out of this situation. Russia can still withdraw its troops from Crimea and eastern Ukraine, abide by its commitments under the Minsk agreementsand let the Ukrainian people get on with running their own country.

But until this happens, we will not ignore what has taken place in Crimea. Our established position is firm Crimeas annexation is unacceptable, and we will continue to defend our values with sanctions that punish those responsible for taking Crimea from Ukraine.

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Bruce Bucknell took up his post as the British Ambassador to Belarus in July 2012. Before that, he was the Deputy Head of Security in the Estates Directorate in London and, from 2007 until 2009, the Deputy Head of the Sudan Unit, a joint Foreign and Commonwealth Office and Department for International Development team.

Bruce Bucknell began his career in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1985. Since then he has served in Jordan, Italy and Spain and worked in various capacities at the FCO in London. He is married with two sons.