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Updated: Fri, 09 May 2014 08:17:32 GMT | By The Associated Press, cbc.ca

Ukraine: Vladimir Putin arrives in Crimea



Russian President Vladimir Putin (© C)

Russian President Vladimir Putin (C) leaves after watching the Victory Day Parade in Moscow's Red Square May 9, 2014. Russia celebrates the 1945 victory over Nazi Germany during World War Two on May 9. REUTERS/Grigory Dukor (RUSSIA - Tags: POLITICS MILITARY ANNIVERSARY CONFLICT) - RTR3OEDN REUTERS

Kremlin says that President Vladimir Putin has arrived in Crimea, the Russian leader's first trip to the region since its annexation.

The triumphant trip to Crimea follows a massive show of military muscle in the annual Red Square parade marking victory over Nazi Germany. The celebrations come at a time when the world's attention is focused on Ukraine where pro-Russian insurgents are preparing a referendum on secession.

Crimea, which hosts a major Russian Black Sea Fleet base, was annexed by Russia in March in a hastily called referendum held weeks after Russian troops took over Ukraine's Black Sea peninsula.

The presidential press service says that Putin is to attend a massive navy parade in the port of Sevastopol.

Putin made no reference to the situation in Ukraine in his speech before the Moscow parade, focusing on the historic importance of the victory. But in a sign of triumph, parading troops included a marine unit from the Black Sea Fleet that flew the Crimean flag on its armoured personnel carriers.

About 11,000 Russian troops proudly marched across Red Square to the tunes of marches and patriotic songs, followed by columns of dozens of tanks and rocket launchers. About 70 combat aircraft, including giant nuclear-capable strategic bombers, roared overhead.

Victory Day is Russia's most important secular holiday and a key element of the national identity, reflecting the nation's enormous suffering and honouring millions of victims of Second World War. This year it comes as Russia is locked in the worst crisis with the West since the end of the Cold War.

The parade, which featured massive Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missiles, comes a day after Putin visited the Defence Ministry's main operational centre to watch a massive military exercise that simulated a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack. The official statements describing the manoeuvres were strikingly blunt, reflecting simmering tensions with the West.

Referendum set for Sunday

The West and the Ukrainian government accuse Russia of fomenting the unrest in Ukraine's east, where insurgents have seized government buildings in a dozen of cities and towns, and fought with government troops. They have set a referendum on independence for Sunday, a vote similar to a plebiscite that paved the way for Moscow's annexation of Crimea in March.

Putin's surprise call on Wednesday for delaying the referendum in eastern Ukraine appeared to reflect Russia's desire to distance itself from the separatists as it bargains with the West over a settlement to the Ukrainian crisis.

But insurgents in the Russian-speaking east defied Putin's call and said they would go ahead with the referendum. While reflecting the anger against the central government shared by many in the east, the move also supported Moscow's denial of engineering the mutiny.

Putin also said Russia had withdrawn its forces from the Ukrainian border, but Pentagon spokesman Army Col. Steve Warren said Thursday there had been no evidence of a pullback.

The United States and the European Union have slapped travel bans and asset freezes on members of Putin's entourage in response to the annexation of Crimea.

Despite the sanctions, Putin is set to travel to France in early June for a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the D-Day invasion that hastened the end of the Second World War, his first encounter with Western leaders since the start of the Ukrainian crisis.

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