SEVASTOPOL, Crimea – Sailing into this Black Sea port Friday amid a jubilant spectacle of fighter jets and warships, President Vladimir Putin celebrated the return of Crimea to Russia as historic justice during a Victory Day display of military pomp and patriotism.
The gravity of the crisis gripping the rest of Ukraine was underscored by deadly clashes in the east, where fighting left bodies in the streets of the seaside city of Mariupol and the police station a smoldering ruin.
At least seven people were killed and dozens injured in the city, one of at least a dozen where pro-Russian insurgents are agitating to follow Crimea’s lead in seceding from Ukraine.
Speaking before a cheering crowd of thousands on a triumphant first visit to Crimea since its annexation into Russia, Putin hailed the incorporation of its 2 million people as a return to the Motherland and a tribute to the historical justice and the memory of our ancestors.
The Russian leader’s visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based, came on Victory Day, which commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany and is Russia’s most important holiday.
The trip was strongly criticized by the United States, NATO and Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, which said it trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.
Putin expanded on the theme of righting a historic wrong with Crimea’s return to Russia in a later address at a commemorative concert, saying Moscow respected other countries’ interests and we ask that all of them show regard for our legal interests, including the restoration of historical justice and the right to self-determination.
Conquered by Russia in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, Crimea became part of Ukraine only in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia. The move was a formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine.
It remained under Ukrainian control until its annexation by Russia in March, following a hastily arranged referendum – moves condemned by the West and Kiev.
The violence in the strategic port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea – along the main road between the Russian border and the Crimean Peninsula – was a clear sign of increasing unrest in eastern Ukraine.
The Donetsk region, which includes Mariupol, and the neighboring Luhansk region are to hold a hastily organized referendum Sunday on declaring sovereignty, a move likely to deepen the crisis between supporters of Ukraine’s fledgling government and pro-Russia insurgents who claim the authorities in Kiev are a fascist junta.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said about 60 gunmen attacked the Mariupol police station and were repulsed in an operation that killed one policeman and about 20 people he called terrorists. The Donetsk regional government said seven people were killed and 39 others were wounded. The conflicting death tolls could not be reconciled.
Some residents said troops fired on unarmed protesters and attacked police who were protecting demonstrators occupying the nearby administration headquarters.
Putin’s two Victory Day celebrations – a massive show of military muscle in the annual Red Square parade in Moscow, followed by the extravaganza in Sevastopol – rubbed salt in the wounds of Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev without ever once mentioning its name.
The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of fomenting the unrest in Ukraine’s east, where insurgents have seized government buildings in a dozen cities and towns.
The referendum on independence being held Sunday in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions – an area that encompasses 6.5 million people – is similar to the plebiscite that paved the way for Moscow’s annexation of Crimea.
Putin’s surprise call Wednesday for the rebels to delay the vote appeared to reflect Russia’s desire to distance itself from the separatists as it bargains with the West. But insurgents in Ukraine’s Russian-speaking east defied Putin’s call and said they would go ahead anyway.