My wife’s brother works for a company that repairs Russian ships at Sevastopol’s shipyard. Although he lives in St. Petersburg, he spends much of his time in Crimea. He interacts with Crimean locals regularly while in Sevastopol and says that the people who live there, with very few exceptions, want nothing to do with Ukraine, its language or its culture. He also said that they identified as Russians before the annexation.
The American people have been served so much propaganda by NeoCon/Liberal politicians and the media that, as you noted, they actually believe that Putin invaded Crimea and is occupying it by force. It’s embarrassing to try to explain to my extended Russian family the hysteria over Crimea and the farcical allegations of Trump/Russia election collusion. They are shocked that Americans are so gullible to believe the propaganda they are being served. They not only think Americans are stupid, but that for nearly three decades, we have been played by the ruling oligarchs in Kiev who have become dependent on our billions in foreign aid to maintain their luxurious castles and opulent lifestyle.