Russian President Vladimir Putin stirred fresh outrage Friday when he capped his country’s annual Victory Day display of military might with a visit to the Crimean territory seized from Ukraine earlier this year and praised its return to the “Motherland.”
Ukrainian and NATO officials immediately condemned Putin’s first visit to Crimea since Russian forces invaded in late February and the Kremlin annexed the strategic Black Sea peninsula after a hastily organized referendum in March.
In the southeastern port of Mariupol, fighting flared between pro-Russian gunmen trying to seize the city's police headquarters and Ukrainian defense troops guarding the building. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported 21 dead -- all but one of them "terrorists" -- and the police building set ablaze.
Although the Victory Day holiday marking the Allied forces triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II is observed throughout Europe, it was an occasion marred by new tensions and ominous threats of war this year. The United States, the European Union and the vast majority of U.N. member states have denounced the Crimean land grab as a violation of international law, and the U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions on Russia.
But Putin has been little deterred in his moves cast as protection of Russians and Russian-speakers living in independent countries since the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup. Kremlin officials describe the interim government in Kiev as illegitimate, having come to power in late February after pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovich fled a three-month rebellion.
Putin this week attempted to put distance between himself and separatist gunmen occupying about a dozen towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine, including in Donetsk and Lugansk regions where a Crimea-style referendum on seceding from Ukraine is set for Sunday. Putin on Wednesday called on the separatists to postpone the vote to give more time for diplomatic efforts to work in resolving the Ukraine crisis, which the Kiev government and its Western allies contend is of the Kremlin’s own making.
Denis Pushilin, the self-styled leader of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” has rejected Putin’s advice and said the referendum will go forward as planned. Unlike in Crimea, however, polls and demographics suggest far too little support exists in the occupied regions for a break from Ukraine.
Putin spent Friday morning reviewing a Red Square display of military hardware and troops, including a Black Sea marine unit flying the Crimean flag from its thundering armored vehicles. He praised the military show as evidence of Russia’s “all-conquering patriotic force,” then flew to Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet. He laid a wreath in honor of Soviet troops killed in World War II and took part in a naval parade in the Crimean city that Russia leased from Ukraine before reuniting it with Russia on the pretext of needing to protect its Russian majority from the government in Kiev.
In his address at the naval base, Putin praised the Russian takeover of Crimea for its “return to the fold of the Motherland” after 60 years as part of Ukraine and cast the recovery as “historical justice” for Russian ancestors.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denounced Putin’s visit to Crimea as “inappropriate,” given that the alliance regards the peninsula as Ukrainian territory.
“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognize it,” Rasmussen said during a visit to Tallinn, Estonia, a NATO member with a Russian population that Moscow often contends is discriminated against.
Rasmussen also reiterated that NATO has yet to see any signs of a Russian military pullback from Ukraine’s border, as Putin alleged was underway earlier this week.
Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry accused Putin of stirring further unrest in the politically and ethnically divided country.
“Such a provocation is yet another confirmation that Russia is deliberately pursuing further escalation of tensions in Ukrainian-Russian relations,” the ministry said in a statement.
Modest Victory Day celebrations were held Thursday in Kiev, and the capital was calm and quiet on Friday as many residents took advantage of the day off from work to enjoy the glorious spring sunshine in the countryside.
In the south and east, though, violence persisted between the pro-Russia gunmen and Ukrainian forces trying to recover government control of buildings occupied by the separatists.
The Kyiv Post quoted a report by the Interior Ministry saying 21 had died in the battle for the police headquarters in the port on the Sea of Azov that separates Ukraine and Russia north and east of Crimea. Avakov said the dead were 20 "terrorists," his label for the pro-Russian gunmen, and one policeman.
The Associated Press reported that its journalist in Mariupol had seen three bodies and the police building in flames after a day of fierce confrontation.