SEVASTOPOL: President Vladimir Putin flew in to Crimea yesterday, marking the Soviet victory in the Second World War 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 tomorrow 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.
“Much work lies ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger.”
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.
“The iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe from slavery,” Putin said in a speech to the military and war veterans gathered on Red Square. But Nato Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said: “His visit to Crimea is inappropriate.”
The head of the US-led defence pact was speaking in formerly Soviet Estonia, one of a host of east European nations that joined after the collapse of communism, seeking refuge from the power of Moscow, which many in the region regarded as having enslaved them following its victory in the Second World War.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk rejects Russian allegations that his power is the result of coup backed by neo-Nazi Ukrainian nationalists.
“Sixty-nine years ago, we, together with Russia, fought against fascism and won,” he said after a Victory Day church service in the capital. Now, he added, “history is repeating itself but in a different form”.
Where Russia and Ukraine stood shoulder to shoulder in the past against Germany, now Germany was “standing shoulder to shoulder with us”, along with the United States and Britain.
Ukraine’s SBU security service accused Russian saboteurs of setting a fire that briefly disrupted state broadcasting services and the Foreign Ministry issued a statement describing Putin’s visit as a deliberate escalation of the crisis.
In a dramatic and apparently conciliatory gesture, Putin urged the Ukrainian separatists on Wednesday to call off the secession referendum they plan in the Russian-speaking eastern industrial regions of Donetsk and Luhansk. But they plan to go ahead. Moscow insists it has no direct control over the armed militants, despite assertions to the contrary from Kiev.
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 medical authorities said three had been killed in fighting and 25 wounded. On Tuesday, Avakov said that more than 30 rebels had been killed in fighting near another eastern city, though that figure was not subsequently confirmed.