Putin Arrives In Crimea To Celebrate Victory Day, First Visit Since Annexation

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Russian President Putin meets servicemen during celebrations to mark Victory Day in Moscow's Red Square.

Russian President Vladimir Putin arrived in Crimea, a region annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March, on Friday to celebrate the 1945 Soviet victory over the Nazis, known as Victory Day. 

Before a crowd at a concert in Sevastopol, Putin reaffirmed that Russians’ rights and interests should be respected.

"We treat all countries, all peoples, with respect. We respect their lawful rights and interests. But we ask that everybody should treat our lawful interests, including restoring historical justice and the right to self-determination, in the same way," he said.

Before he flew to Sevastopol, the home of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, Putin made a speech in Moscow where he paid tribute to World War II heroes and his vow to defend the “motherland.”

“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,” Putin said at the Moscow parade. “It’s a holiday when the all-triumphant power of patriotism celebrates victory.”

About 11,000 troops marched in Red Square to celebrate Victory Day, one of Russia’s most important secular holidays. Dozens of tanks, armored personnel carriers, missiles and other pieces of heavy military machinery rolled past the Kremlin. The parade ended with six battle planes drawing the red, white and blue colors of the Russian flag across the sky.

Putin’s trip to the Crimea is his first since the peninsula seceded from Ukraine and joined with Russia – a move interpreted as a crowning achievement, having sent Putin's approval ratings to multiyear highs.

Sevastopol began its Victory Day celebrations with one of three scheduled parades – two on the ground and one in the air. The naval city was devastated during World War II. On Friday it was celebrating the 70th anniversary of its liberation from German occupation and its new return to Russia.

Russia has already marked the annexation with a commemorative coin that belongs to a series grandly named “The Gatherer of Russian Lands." The 25 palm-sized silver coins bearing Putin's face were designed to celebrate Crimea's "reunification" with Russia. 

Meanwhile, in Ukraine’s southeastern port city of Mariupol, several people were reportedly killed Friday in a shootout between Ukrainian troops and separatists.

The fighting comes at the heels of the referendum vote scheduled for Sunday.

Putin earlier this week when he called for the referendum to be postponed in eastern Ukraine. Since then, pro-Russian separatists have vowed to hold the secession vote regardless of his wishes.

Denis Pushilin, a pro-Russian activist leader in Donetsk and self-proclaimed chairman of the "Donetsk People's Republic" council, said Thursday the decision among the separatists was unanimous.

The suggestion for a postponement may have come "from a person who indeed cares for the people of the southeast," Pushilin told the Associated Press, "but we are the bullhorn of the people."

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