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Monday, December 5, 2016

By Carol J. Williams, Los Angeles Times

KIEV, Ukraine — In the southeastern port of Mariupol, fighting flared between pro-Russian gunmen trying to seize the city’s police headquarters and Ukrainian defense troops guarding the building. Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov reported 21 dead — all but one of them “terrorists” — and the police building set ablaze.

Although the Victory Day holiday marking the Allied forces triumph over Nazi Germany in World War II is observed throughout Europe, it was an occasion marred by new tensions and ominous threats of war this year. The United States, the European Union and the vast majority of U.N. member states have denounced the Crimean land grab as a violation of international law, and the U.S. and EU have imposed sanctions on Russia.

But Putin has been little deterred in his moves cast as protection of Russians and Russian-speakers living in independent countries since the Soviet Union’s 1991 breakup. Kremlin officials describe the interim government in Kiev as illegitimate, having come to power in late February after pro-Russia President Viktor Yanukovych fled a three-month rebellion.

Putin this week attempted to put distance between himself and separatist gunmen occupying about a dozen towns and cities in eastern and southern Ukraine, including in Donetsk and Luhansk regions where a Crimea-style referendum on seceding from Ukraine is set for Sunday. Putin on Wednesday called on the separatists to postpone the vote to give more time for diplomatic efforts to work in resolving the Ukraine crisis, which the Kiev government and its Western allies contend is of the Kremlin’s own making.

Denis Pushilin, the self-styled leader of the “People’s Republic of Donetsk,” has rejected Putin’s advice and said the referendum will go forward as planned. Unlike in Crimea, however, polls and demographics suggest far too little support exists in the occupied regions for a break from Ukraine.

Putin spent Friday morning reviewing a Red Square display of military hardware and troops, including a Black Sea marine unit flying the Crimean flag from its thundering armored vehicles. He praised the military show as evidence of Russia’s “all-conquering patriotic force,” then flew to Sevastopol, home of the Black Sea fleet. He laid a wreath in honor of Soviet troops killed in World War II and took part in a naval parade in the Crimean city that Russia leased from Ukraine before reuniting it with Russia on the pretext of needing to protect its Russian majority from the government in Kiev.

In his address at the naval base, Putin praised the Russian takeover of Crimea for its “return to the fold of the Motherland” after 60 years as part of Ukraine and cast the recovery as “historical justice” for Russian ancestors.

NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen denounced Putin’s visit to Crimea as “inappropriate,” given that the alliance regards the peninsula as Ukrainian territory.

“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don’t recognize it,” Rasmussen said during a visit to Tallinn, Estonia, a NATO member with a Russian population that Moscow often contends is discriminated against.

Rasmussen also reiterated that NATO has yet to see any signs of a Russian military pullback from Ukraine’s border, as Putin alleged was underway earlier this week.

Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry accused Putin of stirring further unrest in the politically and ethnically divided country.

“Such a provocation is yet another confirmation that Russia is deliberately pursuing further escalation of tensions in Ukrainian-Russian relations,” the ministry said in a statement.

AFP Photo/Maxim Shipenkov