Russian President Vladimir Putin (C), Defence Minister
Sergei Shoigu (L) and Russia's Federal Security Service
(FSB) Director Alexander Bortnikov watch events to mark
Victory Day in Sevastopol. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov
President Vladimir Putin flew in to Crimea for the first
time since it was annexed by Moscow, proclaiming as he marked
the Soviet victory in World War 2 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, between three
and 20 people were reported killed in the port of Mariupol,
one of the biggest clashes yet between Ukrainian forces and
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
The pro-Western government in Kiev, labelled "fascist" by
Moscow, said Putin's visit was intended to escalate the
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
"The iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and
stamina saved Europe from slavery," Putin said in a speech to
the military and war veterans gathered on Red Square.
The United States said the trip to Crimea was provocative,
the European Union said Putin should not have used the World
War Two commemoration to showcase the annexation and NATO
Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called the visit
The head of the U.S.-led defence pact was speaking in
formerly Soviet Estonia, one of a host of east European
nations that joined after the collapse of communism, seeking
refuge from the power of Moscow, which many in the region
regarded as having enslaved them following its victory in
World War Two.
Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseny Yatseniuk, in office since an
uprising overthrew the Kremlin-backed elected president in
Kiev in February, rejects Russian allegations that his power
is the result of coup backed by neo-Nazi Ukrainian
"Sixty-nine years ago, we, together with Russia, fought
against fascism and won," he said after a Victory Day church
service in the capital. Now, he added, "history is repeating
itself but in a different form".
Where Russia and Ukraine stood shoulder to shoulder in the
past against Germany, now Germany was "standing shoulder to
shoulder with us", along with the United States and Britain.
Ukraine's SBU security service accused Russian saboteurs of
setting a fire that briefly disrupted state broadcasts.
In Mariupol, the region's main port on the Sea of Azov,
journalist Tetyana Ignatchenko said there was fierce fighting
outside the police headquarters.
Video showed armoured cars smashing through barricades in the
city and chaotic scenes as soldiers exchanged fire with a
gunman on the street while crowds milled around. Ukrainian
forces later withdrew from the town, a major industrial
centre with a population of about half a million.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said about 20
"terrorists" were killed when pro-Russian militants tried to
seize the city's police headquarters.
A member of Ukraine's parliament, Oleh Lyashko, gave a
different account, saying eight rebels had been killed in
clashes when Ukrainian forces attacked the police
headquarters to try to drive out pro-Russian militants.
A local photographer in Mariupol told Reuters the building
was ablaze and that two bodies were lying in the street
"One of them is definitely a police officer," he said.
Donetsk medical authorities said three had been killed in
fighting and 25 wounded. On Tuesday, Avakov said that more
than 30 rebels had been killed in fighting near another
eastern city, though that figure was not subsequently
A fire a week ago during clashes in the southwestern port of
Odessa killed dozens of pro-Russian activists, hardening
attitudes in the east against the Kiev authorities.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said after a telephone
call with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday that
Moscow hoped Washington would work with Kiev to end Ukraine's
military operation against the separatists.
In Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet previously had
to lease its base from Ukraine, servicemen and veterans
marched in a parade before Putin's arrival that also included
armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles. Banners read
"Sevastopol without Fascists" and "It's our duty to
"I'm here to prevent any provocations from the fascists. I
served in a self-defence unit during March, and I consider it
my duty to be here," said Natalya Malyarchuk, 52.
The ethnic Russian majority among Crimea's two million
population broadly welcomed the Russian takeover that came in
the wake of the Kiev uprising. Given by Soviet leaders to
Ukraine only in the 1950s, many Russians long saw it as
rightfully theirs. Western powers have imposed sanctions
against Russia in response, but reactions have been muted.
Moscow says it has no direct control over the armed rebels in
eastern Ukraine running Sunday's referendum on secession from
Kiev for the mainly Russian-speaking region.
The European Union is likely to strengthen its targeted
sanctions against Russia on Monday, Janusz Lewandowski, a
member of the EU's governing commission, said on Friday.
Diplomats said they would target about 15 people and several
Crimean branches of Ukrainian companies taken over by
While Putin's redrawing of European borders has sparked great
alarm across the continent, U.S. and European leaders are
concerned not to harm their own economies by isolating
And there is little popular support in the West for an armed
conflict with Russia on behalf of Ukraine, a country that is
not a member of NATO and where successive leaders have left a
legacy of corruption, poverty and feeble state institutions.
In Sevastopol, factory worker Vasily Topol, 31, wearing a
white T-shirt with an image of Putin in sunglasses and the
words "Russia's Army", said life was better since Crimea
"We have the greatest admiration for Putin, we are morally
and materially better off since Crimea became part of
Russia," he said, speaking on an embankment overlooking
In Slaviansk, the military stronghold of the separatists in
eastern Ukraine, separatist "people's mayor" Vyacheslav
Ponomaryov and a guard of militiamen led a march of around
2,000 people to lay flowers at a memorial to the World War
Veteran Anatoly Strizhakov said: "Look at all these people -
the children, the women, the pensioners... Today shows we've
got the spirit to stand up to whatever the Ukrainians are
Ponomaryov, who fired a pistol three times in the air during
the ceremony, reassured people it would be safe to vote on
Sunday. Voters in the two regions, with a combined population
of over 6 million, will be asked to vote Yes to the secession
of self-styled "People's Republics" in Donetsk and Luhansk.
Opinion polls in recent months have indicated that support
for such a move is far from solid and it is unclear how many
people will actually take part in voting. A referendum in
Crimea in March, which many boycotted, backed secession by 97