Putin visits annexed Crimea amid separatist moves in Ukraine
President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on Friday for the first time since Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula, just days ahead of a separatist vote by pro-Moscow militants in eastern Ukraine.
Russian news agencies said Putin arrived in the historic port city of Sevastopol where he is expected to oversee a massive military parade commemorating victory over Nazi forces in World War II.
As Ukraine’s crisis rumbled on with reports of fresh fighting in the city of Mariupol and pro-Moscow rebels pushing ahead with independence votes, Putin earlier praised Russian patriotism and loyalty to the state at a military parade in Moscow.
“This is a holiday when all-conquering patriotic force triumphs, when we all feel especially strongly what it means to be true to the Motherland and how important it is to be able to stand up for its interests,” Putin told massed troops to shouts of “Hurrah! Hurrah!”
Russia’s annual parade celebrating victory over the Nazis held special resonance this year after the crisis in Ukraine led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and fighting in eastern regions where separatists threaten to break away.
Similar Victory Day celebrations were planned for later Friday in Sevastopol where the news agencies said Putin had landed after having made no mention of Ukraine in his Moscow speech.
As dozens of helicopters and planes soared in the bright blue sky over Moscow, more than 11,000 troops marched alongside tanks, mobile missile systems and armoured vehicles to the sound of a brass band.
The Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany 69 years ago has long been a source of great pride throughout the ex-USSR, which lost some 30 million citizens during World War II.
Russian news agencies reported Putin’s first visit to Crimea since the Black Sea peninsula was annexed by Moscow in March.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday warned Putin against making the visit, saying it would be a “pity” if he went to the region.
– Celebration ‘ruined’ in Ukraine –
In contrast to the display of military hardware on Red Square, Ukraine held muted Victory Day celebrations in a bid to avoid violence.
The head of Kiev’s city council banned large-scale public gatherings or parades in the capital, fearing that the veterans could be attacked by “Russian provocateurs”.
A short ceremony was held in the presence of Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk, several former presidents and a few dozen veterans in the city’s main park.
Their chests bulging with medals, the veterans marched with flowers in their hands but the atmosphere was subdued.
“Today’s celebration has been ruined. We cannot celebrate the victory as usual because of the political situation,” said one of the veterans, Vasyl Kupshenko.
On Wednesday, Putin stunned the world with an abrupt U-turn on Ukraine, calling on pro-Russian separatists in the east to delay independence referendums planned for this weekend and welcoming a May 25 presidential election.
But the rebels holed up in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine defied his plea and vowed to press ahead with referendums this Sunday that are bound to stoke tensions.
Fears of war on Europe’s doorstep have been fired by fighting pitting Ukrainian troops against pro-Moscow gunmen in the east of the country.
– ‘Serious fighting’ resumes –
Fighting resumed on Friday, with media reports that clashes broke out in the southeastern port city of Mariupol, causing casualties.
Russia’s Interfax news agency said Ukrainian troops used large calibre weapons as they tried to take an occupied government building in the city. An online Ukrainian news website, Insider, said eight pro-Russian militants had been killed.
Members of a crew from Britain’s ITV News said on Twitter that they saw heavy guns being used and smoke from burning tyres rising above Mariupol amid “serious fighting”.
In one of the cities at the centre of the fighting, Slavyansk, three armoured vehicles including one flying the Russian flag paraded through the city centre on Friday.
Local rebel leader Vyatcheslav Ponomarev urged a large crowd gathered in the city square to support “our movement for total independence” and vowed: “We will get rid of the fascist plague.”
Ukraine has lost 14 troops and three helicopter gunships with 66 servicemen injured in assaults on the rebels. The fighting has also claimed the lives of more than 30 insurgents.
Clashes that resulted in a horrific inferno in the southern port city of Odessa last week claimed another 42 lives, most of them pro-Russian activists, pushing the death toll over the past week to nearly 90.
The crisis in Ukraine, which kicked off after the ouster of the country’s pro-Kremlin president Viktor Yanukovych in February, has sunk Russia’s relations with the West to their lowest point since the Cold War.
The United States and European Union have imposed a series of sanctions on Putin and his inner circle and EU ministers are to meet on Monday to consider further measures.
The violence has prompted many Western politicians to warn that the country of 46 million people is slipping towards a civil war that would imperil peace in Europe.
Officials from the EU, Russia and Ukraine are also set to meet in Brussels on Monday for further talks on the future of Russian gas supplies to Kiev and Europe.
Europe is desperately worried after Russia ordered Ukraine to pay up front for all its natural gas deliveries, raising the spectre of imminent shortages for the EU.
Nearly 15 percent of Russian gas consumed by the 28-nation bloc transits though Ukraine.