KIEV, Ukraine — Calling this “an important year in the annals of Sevastopol and our whole country” Russian President Vladimir Putin Friday set foot in Crimea for the first time since the March occupation and annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
The visit, to witness a military parade on Victory Day, celebrating the surrender of Nazi Germany to end the European part of World War II, enraged Ukraine, which maintains the annexation was illegal.
“Russia consistently escalates Russian-Ukrainian relations,” read a statement from the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs. “We insist Russia return to civilized methods of international relations, and we insist they listen to the world and end their illegal occupation and annexation of a part of the territory of Ukraine.”
But Putin was hardly in an apologetic frame of mind Friday. He began the day with a traditional military parade on Red Square in Moscow, though the size and firepower on display dwarfed parades of recent years, and brought back memories of these parades during the days of the Soviet Union.
While Ukraine, the United States and much of the international community has consistently condemned the annexation of Crimea, at home the move was a huge political boost for Putin. In fact, in Moscow, the theme of the parade seemed to be to welcome home Sevastopol, the traditional home of the Black Sea fleet of Russia, and before that the Soviet Union.
Putin has insisted that Russia welcomed Crimea back into the Russian motherland only after listening to the will of the Crimean people. He notes a mid-March referendum that officially showed about 97 percent support for Crimea becoming a part of Russia, as it had been since the late 1700s. A hastily taken down posting on a Kremlin website, however, showed far different results to the vote than the officially announced results. Those results showed perhaps a third of Crimean voters showed up at the polls, and only half of those favored joining Russia.
In Sevastopol, Putin said: “I think 2014 will also be, as the year when people living here firmly decided to be together with Russia, and thus confirmed their faith in the historic memory of our forefathers… There is a lot of work ahead, but we will overcome all the difficulties because we are together, and that means we have become even stronger.”
Victory day celebrations in other parts of Ukraine were less enthusiastic. In Mariupol in the tense Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine, Ukrainian forces fought with pro-Russian separatists over a police station. In that fight, the Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said 21 died. He added that all except one of the dead were pro-Russians.
In Donetsk, a group of pro-Russian separatists attacked a Ukrainian military barracks at around 6 p.m. There were no immediate details of the outcome of that struggle.