SEVASTOPOL, CRIMEA – Election preparations were underway in east Ukraine on Saturday on the eve of an independence vote called by pro-Russian separatists as government forces pushed ahead with a military offensive against the rebels.
The voting was to come after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Crimea on Friday for the first time since its annexation by Moscow. Sailing into the Black Sea port of Sevastopol amid a jubilant spectacle of fighter jets and warships, Putin celebrated the return of Crimea to Russia as “historic justice” during a Victory Day display of military pomp and patriotism.
The gravity of the crisis gripping the rest of Ukraine was underscored by deadly clashes in the east, where fighting left bodies in the streets of the seaside city of Mariupol and the police station was a smoldering ruin.
At least seven people were killed and dozens injured in the city, one of at least a dozen where pro-Russian insurgents are agitating to follow Crimea’s lead in seceding from Ukraine.
Despite a surprise call from Putin last week to delay the independence referendums, rebels holed up in more than a dozen towns and cities in eastern Ukraine vowed to press ahead with votes that are bound to increase tensions.
Sunday’s referendum asks people if the industrial region of Donetsk should become independent from Kiev and is seen as a potential steppingstone by some toward joining Russia. A similar vote is also set to be held in neighboring Luhansk region.
Speaking before a cheering crowd of thousands on a triumphant first visit to Crimea since its annexation into Russia, Putin hailed the incorporation of its 2 million people as a “return to the motherland” and a tribute to the “historical justice and the memory of our ancestors.”
His visit to the Crimean port of Sevastopol, where Russia’s Black Sea Fleet is based, came on Victory Day, which commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany and is Russia’s most important holiday. The trip was strongly criticized by the United States, NATO and Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, which said it trampled on Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law.
Putin’s two Victory Day celebrations — a massive show of military muscle in the Red Square parade in Moscow, followed by the extravaganza in Sevastopol — rubbed salt in the wounds of Ukraine’s interim government in Kiev without ever once mentioning its name.
In Sevastopol, Putin rode a cabin cruiser-type boat past hulking warships, issuing greetings to their crews, as warplanes and helicopters swooped over the vast harbor. He then stepped onto land for a short address to the tens of thousands on the shore who came to watch the spectacle. In a later address at a commemorative concert, he expanded on the theme of righting a historic wrong with Crimea’s return to Russia, saying Moscow respected other countries’ interests and “we ask that all of them show regard for our legal interests, including the restoration of historical justice and the right to self-determination.”
Conquered by Russia in the 18th century under Catherine the Great, Crimea only became part of Ukraine in 1954 when Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred jurisdiction from Russia.
The move was a formality until the 1991 Soviet collapse meant Crimea landed in an independent Ukraine. It remained under Ukrainian control until its annexation by Russia in March following a hastily arranged referendum — moves condemned by the West and Kiev.
The violence in the port of Mariupol on the Azov Sea — along the main road between the Russian border and the Crimean Peninsula — was a clear sign of increasing unrest in eastern Ukraine.
There were varying accounts of Friday’s violence in Mariupol, a city of half a million people that also was hit by unrest last month.
Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said about 60 gunmen attacked the Mariupol police station and were repulsed in an operation that killed one policeman and about 20 people he called “terrorists.”
The Donetsk regional government said seven people were killed and 39 were wounded.
The conflicting death tolls could not be reconciled. An AP reporter saw three bodies in the street, one of them covered by a blanket with a policeman’s hat placed at the head.