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.
“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.
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
In pictures: The Ukraine crisis
1/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers from the 'Azov' battalion guard their base in Mariupol, Donetsk
2/39 Ukraine crisis
Children were transferred from orphanages in Donetsk and Makeyevka to escape the fighting between the Ukrainian army and pro-Russian separatists
3/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian servicemen captured by pro-Russian separatists sit on the ground as they are assigned to clean a street in Snizhne in the Donetsk region
4/39 Ukraine crisis
A view inside the Youth Culture Centre destroyed by pro-Russian separatists in Donetsk
5/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman holds a portrait of her dead son as she speaks during a rally in front of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko's office in Kiev
6/39 Ukraine crisis
A boy ascends the stairs of a bomb shelter after the shelling in the Petrovskiy district in Donetsk
7/39 Ukraine crisis
A medic looks at thirty coffins prepared for the funerals of pro-Russian rebels killed during heavy fighting at Donetsk airport, outside a Donetsk morgue
8/39 Ukraine crisis
Relatives mourn near the coffin of Mark Zverev, a taxi driver shot dead during clashes at the Donetsk airport between Ukrainian troops and the pro-Russian rebels, during his funeral in the village of Grabari on the outskirts of Donetsk
9/39 Ukraine crisis
Medical workers carry a wounded pro-Russian militant on a stretcher after armed clashes occured between pro-Russian gunmen and Ukrainian troops in Slavyansk
10/39 Ukraine crisis
A member of a newly-formed pro-Russian armed group called the Russian Orthodox Army mans a barricade near Donetsk airport
11/39 Ukraine crisis
Black smoke rises from a shot down Ukrainian Army helicopter outside Slovyansk
12/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman is overcome with emotion as she looks at blood stains and damage around a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
13/39 Ukraine crisis
A local man looks at damage near a wrecked truck of supporters of the self-proclaimed 'Donetsk People's Republic' on road leading to the Donetsk International Airport
14/39 Ukraine crisis
A bloodstained icon of Jesus is seen among blood soaked shattered glass atop a wrecked truck near the Donetsk airport
15/39 Ukraine crisis
A family member attends a funeral for Olga Prokhorenko (60) who was killed by shrapnel after Ukrainian government forces shelled their location, during the funeral in Slovyansk
16/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman reacts after seeing the lifeless body of a man killed by shrapnel following a shelling from Ukrainian government forces in Slovyansk
17/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russian militants take position on the roof of the international airport of the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
18/39 Ukraine crisis
A woman embraces a pro-Russian separatist from the "East" battalion during a rally in the eastern city of Donetsk
19/39 Ukraine crisis
A Ukrainian helicopter Mi-24 gunship fires its cannons against rebels at the main terminal building of Donetsk international airport
20/39 Ukraine crisis
A pro-Russian gunman changes his position near the airport, outside Donetsk
21/39 Ukraine crisis
A pro-Russian gunman aims his weapon near the airport, outside Donetsk. Ukraine's military launched air strikes against separatists who had taken over the airport in the eastern capital of Donetsk in what appeared to be the most visible operation of the Ukrainian troops since they started a crackdown on insurgents
22/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russians ride on a truck in Donetsk. A convoy of an armored personnel carrier and seven trucks carrying several hundred heavily armed men drove through central Donetsk and gunmen got out of the trucks, stood to attention and gave shots in the air in jubilation as a crowd of several thousand supporters cheered them and chanted: "Heroes!"
23/39 Ukraine crisis
An elderly woman leans against the chest of a pro-Russian gunman in Lenin square in Donetsk
24/39 Ukraine crisis
Pro-Russian militants guard a psychiatric hospital after shell explosions during the fighting between pro-Russian militants and the Ukrainian army, in Semyonovka village, outside Slavyansk
25/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian troops stand guard at a checkpoint on the road near the eastern city of Izum, Donetsk
26/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of the Democratic Alliance party take part in a performance in front of the French embassy in Kiev. Protesters set up a pool with the blood of animals and models of warships in a protest against French plans for the sale of two Mistral helicopter carriers to the Russian Navy
27/39 Ukraine crisis
A man carries a portrait of pro-Russian activist Vadim Hudich, who was killed in a shooting incident at the head of a funeral procession in the eastern Ukranian town of Krasnoarmeisk
28/39 Ukraine crisis
A voter is seen inside a voting booth at a polling station during the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in the eastern Ukrainian city of Donetsk
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Members of a local election commission sort ballots as they start counting votes of referendum on the status of Luhansk region in Luhansk
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Members of a local election commission empty a ballot box as they start counting votes of the referendum on the status of Donetsk region in Donetsk
31/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of a local election commission empty ballot boxes as they start counting votes after a referendum, at a polling station in Lugansk
32/39 Ukraine crisis
Local residents watch as others give first aid to a man who was shot in the leg by Ukranian militia in the village of Krasnoarmisk. Eyewitness said that Ukranian militia tried to stop the referendum voters briefly taking the City Hall of Krasnoarmisk, where unarmed pro-Russian supporters were gathering. Reportedly the Ukranian militia came out out the building and started shooting at the people, killing at least one man and leaving at least two others injured
33/39 Ukraine crisis
Members of a local election commission count votes after a referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members at a polling station in Donetsk
34/39 Ukraine crisis
Voters visit a polling station to take part in the referendum on the status of Donetsk
35/39 Ukraine crisis
An Armoured Personnel Carrier (APC) with a Russian flag drives through the center of Slaviansk during the day of referendum organized by the so-called Donetsk People's Republic members in Slavyansk
36/39 Ukraine crisis
A statue of Lenin is placed in front of a pro-Russian barricade on the outskirts of the eastern Ukrainian town of Slavyansk
37/39 Ukraine crisis
A feamle veteran (C) sings during 'Victory Day' celebrations in Donetsk
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People stand near the burning Mariupol police station
39/39 Ukraine crisis
Ukrainian soldiers stand guard beside an armoured personnel carrier at a checkpoint in Mariupol. Ukrainian forces seized the rebel-held city hall in the eastern port city of Mariupol, driving out pro-Russian activists, then withdrew, making no attempt to hold onto the building
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.Reuse content