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Putin makes first Crimea visit for military parade as US sends commandos to Baltics

As Russia flexes military might with Victory Day parades, US special forces take part in training exercises across the Baltic states

President Vladimir Putin arrived in Crimea today for his first visit to the region since it was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in March.

The triumphant visit saw him attend a massive naval parade in Sevastopol to mark 69 years since the Soviet victory over Nazi Germany, which occupied Crimea for two years during World War Two.

Mr Putin was present at a similar event in the capital’s Red Square Friday morning, which gave Moscow an opportunity to flex its military muscles as the worst relations between Russia and the West since the Cold War endure, amid continued unrest in eastern Ukraine, where dozens were reportedly killed today. 

In what looks to have been one of the bloodiest clashes in the east yet, Kiev backed Ukrainian security forces claim to have on Friday killed 20 pro-Russian separatists in the port of Mariupol, where a proportion of residents are planning to hold a Crimea style referendum on Sunday.

Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said an attempt by what he called “terrorists” to seize police headquarters turned into a pitched battle inside the building with Ukrainian army, national guard and security force personnel.

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Tanks roll through Moscow's Red Square during the annual Victory Day parade (AFP/Getty)

“A terrorist group of about 60 men armed with automatic weapons attacked the police headquarters...About 20 terrorists were destroyed and four taken prisoner,” Avakov said on his Facebook page.

“To those who come with weapons and who shoot and who take hostages, torture them, rob people, hiding behind various slogans - to them there can be only one answer from the Ukrainian state - annihilation.”

The death toll has not been independently verified.

The clashes and Mr Putin's visit to Crimea come as the US prepares to send hundreds of commandos to the Baltic states over the coming months as part of an ongoing effort to reassure allies in the region.

The Pentagon said around 40 special operations forces are now taking part in the two-week Exercise Spring Storm training exercise in Estonia. A further 140 will participate in Exercise Flaming Sword, which will move

The leaders of the Baltic states have expressed particular concern to the US and Nato, of which they are all members, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea. Like Crimea, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania were once controlled by neighbouring Russia and maintain large Russian populations.

Speaking from the Estonian capital Tallinn, Nato's Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen branded Mr Putin's Crimea visit "inappropriate".

Mr Rasmussen also reiterated that he had no visible confirmation that Russian troops had withdrawn from Ukraine's border. Russia's Foreign Ministry had said Mr Rasmussen was “blind” after he earlier stated he had seen no signs Russian withdrawal.

In Red Square on Friday morning, Mr Putin made no reference to Ukraine as he praised the Soviet role in defeating fascism and said those who defeated fascism must never be betrayed.

The appeal to not forget the people who defeated fascism did however have a poignant ring as Moscow has warned of the dangers posed by leaders it portrays as neo-fascists in Ukraine, and has urged Europe to prevent the rise of the far-right.

He delivered the speech to soldiers and war veterans after watching troops, tanks, artillery and mobile ballistic missile launchers file past him and jet fighters scream overhead.

“The iron will of the Soviet people, their fearlessness and stamina saved Europe from slavery. It was our country which chased the Nazis to their lair, achieved their full and final destruction, won at the cost of millions of victims and terrible hardships,” he said.

“We will always guard this sacred and unfading truth and will not allow the betrayal and obliteration of heroes, of all who, not caring about themselves, preserved peace on the planet.”

Putin is set to travel to France in early June for a ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing, in what will be his first encounter with Western leaders since the start of the Ukrainian crisis.