PRESIDING over a triumphant spectacle of tanks, warships and fighter jets yesterday, Vladimir Putin hailed the return of Crimea to Russia as the restoration of “historic justice” before a jubilant, welcoming crowd on the holiday that Russians hold dearest.
The Russian president’s first trip to the Black Sea peninsula since its annexation in March was strongly criticised by both Nato and Ukraine’s foreign ministry, which said it trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.
In the east of Ukraine, at least three people died yesterday and the main police station in the city of Mariupol was set ablaze in fierce fighting between Ukrainian government forces and pro-Russia rebels. The government said up to 20 people were killed, including one policeman.
Ukraine is struggling with its most serious crisis in decades, with pro-Russia rebels in the east preparing to hold a referendum on secession tomorrow.
Mr Putin’s two Victory Day celebrations, which included a show of military muscle in the annual Red Square parade in Moscow and another in the Crimean port of Sevastopol, rubbed salt in the wounds of the interim government in Kiev.
Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday and a key element of the country’s national identity, honouring the armed forces and the millions who died in the Second World War.
Tens of thousands flooded Sevastopol to watch the extravaganza that was the Russian leader’s entrance. Mr Putin boarded a boat to sail past a line of Russian Black Sea fleet ships anchored in the bay and greeted their crews before watching a flypast of 70 warplanes.
In his speech, Mr Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea’s two million people into Russia as “a return to the Motherland” and a tribute to the “historical justice and the memory of our ancestors”.
However, fighting exploded in Mariupol, a city of 500,000 on the Sea of Azov that is on the main road between Russia proper and Crimea.
One eyewitness saw three dead bodies near the police station, including one policeman.
Ukraine’s interior minister Arsen Avakov said that 20 “terrorists” and one police officer were killed after 60 gunmen tried to capture the police station and were fought off by police and the military.
Mr Avakov said the government was ready to negotiate with those in the east who want to sit down for talks but vowed to destroy those who took up arms.
He promised not to let Ukraine “turn into a burning buffer zone, where death will become the norm”.
Nato secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen repeated his stance that Crimea was not part of Russia.
“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognise it,” said Mr Fogh Rasmussen.
“We still consider Crimea as Ukrainian territory and, from my knowledge, the Ukrainian authorities haven’t invited Putin to visit Crimea, so from that point of view his visit to Crimea is inappropriate.”
Earlier in Moscow, Mr Putin watched as about 11,000 Russian troops proudly marched across Red Square. They were followed by columns of tanks and rocket launchers as 70 combat aircraft, including giant nuclear-capable bombers, roared overhead.
The parading troops on Red Square included one marine unit from the Black Sea fleet, which flew the Crimean flag on its armoured personnel carriers.
The Red Square parade, which featured Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, came a day after Mr Putin watched a military exercise that simulated a retaliatory nuclear strike.
The West and Ukraine accuse Russia of stoking the unrest in Ukraine’s east, where insurgents have seized buildings in a dozen of cities and towns.