Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev attend a Victory Day parade, which commemorates the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany, at Red Square in Moscow, Russia on May 9.
Russian President Vladimir Putin took a short trip to Crimea today, his first since Russia annexed the small peninsula to the south of Ukraine in March.
His visit falls on the 69th anniversary of Victory Day, Russia's celebration of defeating Nazi Germany. It's also the 70th anniversary of Crimeans liberating themselves from Hitler's rule.
Putin arrived in Crimea at the naval port of Sevastopol only hours after a Victory Day parade in Moscow's Red Square. The first vehicle in a procession to honor the holiday featured a huge Crimean flag, according to the New York Times, continuing the Russian government's theme of equating its annexation of Crimea with the defeat of fascists.
Unmarked Russian soldiers entered Crimea in early March and slowly began to take over key government installations until the entire peninsula was under the Kremlin's control. The Crimean people then held a referendum in which they voted—under the gun—to become a part of Russia. Putin has said the invasion was necessary to protect ethnic Russians in Crimea from fascist Ukrainian rioters and that by taking over Crimea, Russia was really just correcting a historical mistake.
Western nations, including the United States, levied sanctions — including travel bans and asset freezes — on Putin and his inner circle following the annexation, but Putin has seemed largely unfazed so far. Russian forces have continued to covertly stir unrest in eastern Ukraine — now Crimea is almost a distant memory.
On Wednesday, though, Putin surprisingly said he supported Ukraine's presidential elections on May 25, and urged pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine to postpone their referendum, which is very similar to the one Crimea had in March. However, the separatists said on Thursday that they will go forward with the vote on Sunday despite Putin's words.
A totally different mood just north
Meanwhile in the coastal town of Odessa, which is just 300 miles north of Crimea, Victory Day has a solemn undertone.
This week, Ukraine’s third-largest city has been mourning the dozens of people who died in clashes between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian nationalists on May 2. The violence began when two demonstrations — one consisting of pro-Ukrainian nationalists holding a unity march, the other supporters of Russia — collided in a melee of smoke grenades, Molotov cocktails, flares and cobblestone bricks.
It was the second-bloodiest day in Ukraine since the Euromaidan uprisings started in November. There has been a funeral every day this week in Odessa.
Tensions have been building for awhile and Odessa as rumors circle throughout the city about what happened during the May 2 clashes. Mashable photographer Evgeny Feldman, who is on the ground in Odessa this week, said those rumors range from talk of snipers on rooftops, to people claiming "hundreds" of people died and their bodies were secretly buried in a hidden place. While none of these claims are based on facts, they are kindling a fire of fear that had already been lit weeks ago.
Officials in Kiev fear more violence on Friday if rival camps rally for Victory Day. Some expect acts of terror, but more clashes are very possible. A few Euromaidan supporters told Feldman that they will only get involved if the pro-Russian crowd tries to seize government buildings. They have stocked rifles and weapons at the Maidan activist headquarters — ready to fight at a moment's notice.
Tags: Vladimir Putin