Russian President Vladimir Putin has taken a victory lap in his first visit to Crimea since its annexation by Russia, as fighting in eastern Ukraine left 21 dead just days ahead of a separatist vote.
The visit drew a sharp rebuke from authorities in Kiev, who accused the Russian strongman of stoking tensions with his visit to Sevastopol, home to Russia’s Black Sea fleet.
“This provocation once again confirms that Russia deliberately seeks further escalation of tensions,” the ministry said, calling the visit a “flagrant violation of Ukraine’s sovereignty”.
The White House also condemned the trip, with National Security Council spokesman Laura Magnuson saying it “will only serve to fuel tensions”.
With unease high ahead of an independence vote planned for Sunday in parts of eastern Ukraine, fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Moscow militants erupted in the southeastern port city of Mariupol.
Interior Minister Arsen Avakov said on his official Facebook page that the fighting had killed 20 insurgents and one police officer.
Mr Putin hailed the incorporation of Crimea into Russia as “return to the Motherland” and a tribute to the “historical justice and the memory of our ancestors.”
The peninsula of 2 million people had been part of Ukraine from 1954 until March.
Boarding a boat, Mr Putin sailed past a line of Russian Black Sea Fleet ships anchored in Sevastopol’s bay and greeted their crews before watching a fly-by of 70 military aircraft. Residents flooded the city’s streets to watch.
With minutes, Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry protested Mr Putin’s visit as trampling on Ukraine’s sovereignty and international law, comments echoed by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen.
“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognise it,” Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Tallinn, Estonia.
“We still consider Crimea as Ukrainian territory and from my knowledge the Ukrainian authorities haven’t invited Putin to visit Crimea, so from that point of view his visit to Crimea is inappropriate.”
The West and the Ukrainian government also accuse Russia of fomenting the unrest in Ukraine’s east, where insurgents have seized government buildings in a dozen of cities and towns.
The insurgents 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.
Mr 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.
But insurgents in the Russian-speaking east defied Mr Putin’s call and said they would go ahead anyway.