Putin in Crimea for first visit since annexation
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Russian President Vladimir Putin made a visit to Crimea on Friday for the first time since his country annexed the autonomous Ukrainian region nearly two months ago, in a move likely to further enflame tensions with Kiev.
The Russian leader arrived in the Crimean city of Sevastopol Friday afternoon, the Kremlin press office said, where he is expected to oversee a massive military parade celebrating victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Russia annexed the Crimean Peninsula in March after a pro-European government took power in Kiev following the ousting of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich.
Putin was also present for a display of Russian military might in Moscow’s Red Square as part of the May 9 celebrations, known as Victory Day.
The Russian president looked on as thousands of troops marched alongside tanks, mobile missile systems and armoured vehicles to the sound of a brass band, while dozens of helicopters and planes soared in the bright blue sky overhead.
"This is a holiday when all-conquering patriotic force triumphs, when we all feel especially strongly what it means to be true to the Motherland and how important it is to be able to stand up for its interests," Putin told massed troops to shouts of "Hurrah! Hurrah!"
Ukraine, which fought alongside Russia in World War II as part of the Soviet Union, also marked Victory Day Friday, but celebrations there were significantly more muted after actingPresident Oleksandr Turchinov warned of the potential for “provocative actions”.
The commemorations come at an extremely sensitive time for the two Slavic nations, which once fought side by side against Nazi Germany, but are now embroiled in an unprecedented confrontation that threatens to tip Ukraine into civil war.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier criticised Putin’s plans to visit Crimea amid such high tensions.
"I think it is a shame if such a day is used to hold a parade in such an area of conflict," Merkel said at a news conference with Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades on Tuesday.
In contrast with the patriotic fervour of Russia’s celebrations, authorities in Kiev were planning a low-key wreath-laying ceremony.
The country has discouraged public gatherings and stepped up security amid fears pro-Russian separatists might try to stoke violence on such a symbolic day.
"Roadblocks have been set up around our capital, where serious checks are being carried out, because we expect that provocative actions may occur on May 9," said Ukrainian President Turchinov, urging vigilance.
Ahead of the celebrations, Kiev has cast Russia as an aggressor bent on sowing chaos in Ukraine, while the Kremlin has accused its neighbour's pro-Western authorities of siding with "fascists" and ultra-right groups.
Animosity between the two nations has reached such levels that Ukraine is dropping the black-and-orange St George ribbon, which Russians cherish as a symbol of Victory Day, instead adopting the red poppy as its remembrance symbol.
Pro-Russian separatists fighting the authorities in Kiev have used the St George ribbon to signal their allegiance, earning the derisive nickname "Colorado beetles", a reference to the ribbon's colours.
"The symbol of victory has come to signify an attempt to seize the territory of a sovereign state," said Elena Urban, a 25-year-old student from the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.
According to some estimates, the Soviet Union lost about 30 million lives in the war and Russia's victory over Nazi Germany remains a source of great pride in the country.
In recent years Putin has skillfully tapped into Russian patriotism, using the May 9 festivities to rally support.
In the run up to Victory Day, Russian authorities have been staging rehearsals of the parade in Moscow as war-era songs blare out from the ornate metro system.
Meanwhile, Kiev has mostly been eerily calm, a remarkable contrast to the violence tearing across eastern Ukraine.
"As a result of Russia's aggression against Ukraine, this day has completely ceased being a holiday and will become a tragic date to remember," said Moscow-based pro-opposition analyst Stanislav Belkovsky.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP)
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