President Vladimir Putin flew in to Crimea on Friday, marking the Soviet victory in World War Two and proclaiming the success of the peninsula’s seizure from a Ukraine that Russia says has been taken over by fascists.
In east Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels plan a referendum on Sunday to follow Crimea in breaking from Kiev, several people were reported killed in the port of Mariupol, one of the bloodiest clashes yet between Ukrainian forces and separatists.
The head of Nato, locked in its gravest confrontation with Russia since the Cold War, condemned Putin’s visit to Crimea, whose annexation in March has not been recognised by Western powers. He also renewed doubts over an assurance by the Kremlin leader that he had pulled back troops from the Ukrainian border.
The government in Kiev called Putin’s visit, his first since the takeover of the region two months ago, a “provocation” that was intended deliberately to escalate the crisis.
Watching a military parade in Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Putin said: “I am sure that 2014 will go into the annals of our whole country as the year when the nations living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, affirming fidelity to the historical truth and the memory of our ancestors.
Earlier in the day, he had presided over the biggest Victory Day parade in Moscow for years. The passing tanks, aircraft and intercontinental ballistic missiles were a reminder to the world — and Russian voters — of Putin’s determination to revive Moscow’s global power, 23 years after the Soviet collapse. However, the violence in troubled Ukraine remains unabated. In Mariupol, the region’s main port on the Sea of Azov, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said about 20 “terrorists” were killed when pro-Russian militants tried to seize the city’s police headquarters.
That was a higher toll and somewhat different account from others. A member of Ukraine’s parliament said Ukrainian forces had attacked the police headquarters in an attempt to drive out pro-Russian militants, and the building caught fire. Oleh Lyashko said eight rebels had been killed in fighting. But Donetsk authorities said three had been killed in fighting and 25 wounded.