Clashes and Putin visit raise tensions before Ukraine poll
Fighting in Mariupol leaves up to 20 pro-Moscow activists dead on eve of separatist vote
“Glory to our veterans. Without them we wouldn’t be here, our country wouldn’t be here and perhaps Europe wouldn’t be here,” said separatist leader Denis Pushilin.
“No one expected fascism to come back, and to come so close to our homes. But those who wanted to defend their homeland have stood up, and we have already have a small victory – the declaration of our Donetsk People’s Republic,” he said.
He said the next stage would be a vote backing its independence from Ukraine, which many easterners – and Moscow – say is now run by Russian-hating fascists.
Kiev and western nations say such allegations are absurd, and are used by the Kremlin and its allies in Ukraine to whip up fear and provide a pretext for Russian interference in a country that was poised to tilt westwards with the ousting of Moscow-backed president Viktor Yanukovich in February.
Many people at the Donetsk rally said they supported independence because they feared fascism and wanted to retain close ties with Moscow.
Others – echoing speakers onstage – expressed regret at the Soviet Union’s demise and spoke of a desire for a state that would unite ethnic Russians in Russia itself, southern and eastern Ukraine and Belarus.
Flags glorifying the Soviet Union and two of its leaders, Vladimir Lenin and Josef Stalin, flew over the gathering, which took place on Donetsk’s Lenin Square.
Red Square display
At about the same time in Moscow, Mr Putin presided over a spectacular – and, for some, ominous — display of military might, as thousands of troops marched across Red Square, followed by tanks and missile launchers and a fly-past by an array of bombers and fighter jets.
“This is a day when we all feel particularly keenly what it means to be faithful to the motherland and how important it is to be able to defend its interests . . . It is a holiday when the all-conquering power of patriotism celebrates victory,” Mr Putin said before flying to Crimea to inspect a similar military show in the Black Sea port of Sevastopol.
He sent troops into Crimea soon after Mr Yanukovich fled for Russia, and quickly annexed the region for Moscow despite outrage from the EU and US, which responded by placing sanctions on politicians and businessmen with links to the Kremlin. Referring to a disputed referendum on the peninsula, Mr Putin said Crimeans had chosen to “return” to Russia, and shown “that they remain true to the historic truth and our forefathers’ memory”.
“We have many difficulties ahead, but we will overcome these difficulties because we are together, and this makes us even stronger,” he told a rapturous crowd.
Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, said Brussels “notes with regret” Mr Putin’s visit to Sevastopol and use of Victory Day “to give visibility to the illegal annexation of Crimea”.
The EU and US have threatened to impose more sanctions on Russia if it continues to “destabilise” Ukraine, and may do so as soon as Monday.