Moscow: President Vladimir Putin declared on Friday that 2014 would enter “the history of our country” as he visited Russia’s Black Sea Fleet on the annexed peninsula of Crimea, asserting Moscow’s right to retake a territory that has deep roots in Russian nationalism but since 1991 had been part of an independent Ukraine.
Using Victory Day, a holiday that marks the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II, Putin flew to the Crimean port city of Sevastopol after presiding over a triumphal military parade through Red Square.
Putin visits Crimea on Victory Day
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Putin visits Crimea on Victory Day
Russian President Vladimir Putin marks Victory Day with his first visit to Crimea since it was annexed from Ukraine in March.
The visit to Sevastopol was Putin’s first to Crimea since Russia annexed the peninsula in March, setting off an international crisis that has threatened to throw Ukraine into civil war. The peninsula and its main port, founded by Catherine the Great in 1783, is now firmly back under Russian control.
“The example of Sevastopol shows the world that in places where people are ready to fight for their freedom, the enemy will never conquer,” Putin said in a triumphant portside address, marking a day that is the anniversary both of the liberation of Sevastopol from Nazi occupation and the total victory over Germany the following year.
“We are sure that 2014 will make it into the history of Sevastopol and the history of our country, because this is the year that the people of Crimea decided firmly to be with Russia, thus proving their loyalty to historical memory and the memory of our predecessors,” he said.
“We have lots of work in front of us, but we will overcome all the difficulties, because we are together, and that means we have become stronger,” he said.
Before his brief remarks, Putin reviewed sailors in the Bay of Sevastopol, using a small white naval ship to salute a line of Russian warships in turn. After he finished visiting the 10 warships, dozens of fighter jets streaked across the sky, highlighting a military might that Putin has threatened to further unleash on Ukraine if he judges Russian interests there to be threatened.
The visit drew immediate condemnation from the head of NATO. Other world leaders had counseled against Putin’s trip in advance.
“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognise it,” NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Tallinn, Estonia, the Associated Press reported. “We still consider Crimea as Ukrainian territory, and from my knowledge the Ukrainian authorities haven’t invited Putin to visit Crimea, so from that point of view his visit to Crimea is inappropriate.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said earlier this week that a parade in Crimea would be “a shame.”
Putin made the trip after speaking earlier in the day in Moscow, where missiles and tanks rumbled down Red Square in a triumphant parade. In an address at the square, Putin vowed that he would always defend his nation’s interests.
Swearing that the memories of Russia’s hard-earned World War II battles would never be forgotten, Putin in both cities addressed aging veterans and his country on Victory Day, one of the most emotionally charged holidays of the Russian calendar.
The commemoration came as thousands of Russian troops massed on the border with Ukraine, poised to invade — and to create new wartime veterans — if Putin gives the command.
In his morning address in Moscow, when armoured personnel carriers from the Black Sea Fleet that were flying the flag of Crimea rolled past the tribune, the crowd went wild with applause. The peninsula was part of Russia until 1954, when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine, then a Soviet republic, and many Russians have wanted it back ever since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union made Ukraine an independent state.
“We will never allow the betrayal and oblivion of the heroes, all those who selflessly safeguarded peace on our planet,” Putin said, speaking on a tribune in front of the tomb of Vladimir Lenin, the founder of the Soviet Union. “We will take care of Russia and its glorious history, and we will always put service to the motherland at the very top. That is how it has always been in our country.”
On a warm spring day, 11,000 soldiers and more than 150 military vehicles, including Iskander-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, rocket launchers and dozens of tanks, paraded across Red Square, past St Basil’s Cathedral and the Kremlin. Under a crystal blue sky — the government seeded clouds in advance so that they disappeared — 69 planes and helicopters streaked above a crowd of veterans and their guests, marking 69 years since the 1945 victory over Nazism. Many of the aging veterans were wearing chestfuls of medals, which clinked in the wind.
During Putin’s more than 14 years in power in Russia, he has turned Victory Day, once a sombre day devoted primarily to private remembrances of wartime victims, into the military parade that it is today. Red banners, stars and the hammer-and-sickle emblem of the Soviet Union have festooned Moscow’s streets in recent days.
The holiday came amid escalating violence in Ukraine that threatens to worsen within days. Victory Day commemorations on Friday providing new flashpoints for confrontation ahead of a planned independence referendum Sunday organised by pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.
If that poll leads to further deaths, Ukrainian leaders fear that Russia might invade. Putin has promised to defend Russian interests in Ukraine if they came under attack.
Putin on Thursday presided over massive military exercises that appeared designed to spotlight his country’s enduring might, with missiles streaking across Russia and rockets raining down on target ranges.
That came a day after he appeared to seek conciliation when he called for the referendum to be postponed. But the loosely organised bands of separatists in eastern Ukraine quickly decided that they would proceed anyway, in part, some said, because momentum was behind them.
Last week, clashes erupted in the previously peaceful port city of Odessa, leaving more than 40 people dead, most of them pro-Russian protesters who were trapped in a blaze when a building was set on fire.
Russian television stations — all of which are now pro-Kremlin after the more skeptical TV Rain was pushed off cable packages in January — have devoted nonstop programming to allegations of abuse in Ukraine, resurrecting World War II-era language to describe some Ukrainian nationalists as fascists and Nazis. Putin’s approval ratings have soared to multi-year heights, above 80 per cent.
At the parade, a dwindling band of veterans — almost all of whom are 87 or older in a nation where life expectancy for men even now hovers below 65 — wore medals and their faded green and blue uniforms. Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu saluted in a Soviet-era Zil limousine that slowly drove him past scores of troops. Then Russia’s white, blue and red flag and the red hammer-and-sickle flag of the Soviet Union were paraded into the square, accompanied by a wartime-era march.
Putin spoke, wearing a red tie and the black-and-orange St. George’s Ribbon, a czarist-era military order of valour that has been repurposed in recent years as a way to honour veterans. On Friday, the ribbon was on almost every lapel in Moscow.
“Today, we are honouring the memory of those killed in the war, those who are not with us today,” Putin said. “Every family honours its devotion to the motherland. A continuous link between generations is our national wealth. The strength and dignity of Russia is based on it.”
The Washington Post