Russian President Vladimir Putin visited the Crimea region he annexed in March amid growing tensions as Ukraine said about 20 pro-Russian separatists died in clashes in the eastern port city of Mariupol.
Putin’s trip to Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, was his first since the Crimean peninsula seceded from Ukraine. The government in Kiev and its U.S. and European allies say Putin’s seizure of Crimea was illegitimate, and they accuse him of fomenting unrest in east Ukraine in what may be a prelude to another land grab.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his Facebook account that at least one serviceman was killed and five wounded in the fighting in Mariupol between security forces and rebels for control of a police building. The city is less than 60 kilometers (37 miles) from the Russian border. NATO says there’s no sign that Putin has fulfilled his pledge this week to pull troops back from the frontier.
Separatists in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions plan autonomy referendums on May 11. The Kiev government has launched a military offensive to regain control of parts of the country where pro-Russian activists seized government buildings. In Donetsk today, separatists surrounded a unit of more than 100 Ukrainian troops at a sanatorium and opened fire on them. The soldiers lay down their arms and left the building.
Before departing for Crimea, Putin watched a drive-by of tanks and armored personnel carriers in Moscow’s Red Square to mark the Soviet victory in World War II. Aircraft flew over releasing smoke trails in the white, blue and red colors of the Russian flag.
“It’s a day when we all especially keenly feel what it means to be faithful to the motherland and how important it is to be able to defend its interests,” the Russian president said. “It’s a holiday when the all-triumphant power of patriotism celebrates victory.”
The ruble weakened for a second day, falling 0.6 percent to 35.227 per dollar at 9:40 p.m. in Moscow. The yield on Ukrainian dollar bonds maturing in April 2023 rose 12 basis points to 10.2 percent. Financial markets in both Russia and Ukraine were closed today for the holiday.
In Sevastopol, Putin attended a parade in to mark the 70th anniversary of Soviet forces driving the Nazis out of the region, with ships from the Black Sea Fleet on display.
He told those attending that he was glad Crimea, which became part of the Soviet republic of Ukraine only in the 1950s, was Russian again. There were shouts from the crowd of “Thank you,” “Russia,” and “Putin.” Many people carried Russian flags.
Nina Medinskach said she’d come from the southeastern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhya to visit a friend.
“I was afraid of coming to Crimea because Ukrainian channels were showing a completely different picture,” she said. “But here I can see genuine euphoria, as people are happy that they are again in Russia.”
Today’s event is “Putin’s victory lap, it’s a form of triumphalism,” Joerg Forbrig, senior program officer for central and eastern Europe at the Berlin bureau of the German Marshall Fund of the U.S., said in a phone interview. “It’s a signal that a return of Crimea is out of the question and reinforces the Russian position that this is Russian land.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Putin’s Crimea visit is “certainly not helpful” and “further destabilizes the region.”
Putin was accompanied by officials including Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Kozak and OAO Rosneft Chief Executive Officer Igor Sechin, both of whom were included on a U.S. sanctions list at the end of April.
The European Union is preparing to impose sanctions on Russian companies that expropriated assets in Crimea, and may approve a list early next week, EU officials said.
The Kiev government, which took over after Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych was toppled by protesters in February, opposes the referendums on secession. The organizers of the votes don’t have access to the official electoral register or other voting infrastructure.
A study by the Pew Research Center found that even in the east, where Russian is widely spoken, Ukrainians reject secession. Pew said 70 percent of respondents in eastern Ukraine and 93 percent in the west preferred the country to remain a unified state and keep its current borders. It interviewed 1,659 people from April 5 to April 23.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said today that a nationwide dialogue aimed at preserving national unity would start May 14, according to the Interfax news service. His government says it won’t talk to separatists involved in violence. Putin says only talks that include the pro-Russian groups can succeed in easing tensions.