SEVASTOPOL, Crimea: Presiding over a triumphant spectacle of warships and fighter jets, President Vladimir Putin hailed the return of Crimea to Russia as the restoration of “historic justice” before a jubilant, welcoming crowd Friday on the holiday that Russians hold dearest.
In Ukraine’s east, where pro-Russia insurgents have seized government buildings and fought with Ukrainian forces, fighting broke out in the city of Mariupol as a police station was set ablaze. The Associated Press saw at least three dead and Ukraine’s interior minister said around 20 “terrorists” and one policeman were killed.
Russia’s annexation of Crimea in March, a few weeks after Ukraine’s president was toppled and fled to Russia, was a key event in Ukrainian’s monthslong crisis, which has now descended into violence.
Putin’s visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based, was strongly criticized by both NATO and Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, which said it trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.
Washington labeled it provocative and again rejected Moscow’s annexation of the Black Sea peninsula.
“This trip is provocative and unnecessary. Crimea belongs to Ukraine, and we don’t recognize, of course, the illegal and illegitimate steps by Russia in that regard,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at her daily briefing.
Ukraine is struggling with its most serious crisis in decades as insurgents in the east are grabbing buildings and territory, fighting the central government and preparing to hold a referendum Sunday on secession.
Putin’s two Victory Day celebrations, which included a massive show of military muscle in the annual Red Square parade in Moscow, and then the extravaganza in Sevastopol, rubbed salt in the wounds of the Kiev government without mentioning it.
In Sevastopol, Putin rode a cabin-cruiser type boat past hulking warships, issuing greetings to their crews, as warplanes and helicopters swooped over the vast harbor. He then stepped onto land for a short address to the tens of thousands on the shore who came to watch.
Victory Day is Russia’s most important secular holiday and a key element of the country’s identity, honoring the armed forces and the millions who died in World War II.
Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea’s 2 million into Russia as “return to the Motherland.”
He expanded on the theme in a later address at a commemorative concert, saying Russia 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.”
Crimea had been transferred to Ukraine in 1954 during Soviet times and remained under Ukrainian control until the March annexation, which has not been acknowledged by the West or Kiev. The annexation followed a hastily arranged referendum.
Fighting exploded Friday in Mariupol, a city of 500,000 on the Sea of Azov that is on the main road between Russia proper and Crimea.
The Donetsk regional administration said three people were killed and 25 wounded during the fighting.
But Ukraine’s Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said 20 “terrorists” and one police officer were killed as 60 insurgent gunmen tried to capture the police station and were rebuffed.