SEVASTOPOL, (Reuters) – President Vladimir Putin flew in to Crimea yesterday for the first time since it was annexed by Moscow, proclaiming as he marked the Soviet victory in World War Two that incorporating the former Ukrainian territory had made Russia stronger.
In east Ukraine, where pro-Moscow rebels plan a referendum on Sunday to follow Crimea in breaking from Kiev, at least seven people were killed and dozens were wounded in chaotic fighting in the centre of the port of Mariupol.
One of the most serious clashes yet between Ukrainian forces and separatists, it edged the former Soviet republic closer to civil war.
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 pro-Western government in Kiev, labelled “fascist” by Moscow, said Putin’s visit was intended to escalate the crisis.
Watching a military parade in Sevastopol on the Black Sea, Putin said: “There is a lot of work 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.