SEVASTOPOL, Crimea (AP) — President Vladimir Putin on Friday traveled to Crimea on his first trip to the Black Sea region since its annexation, a triumphant visit that 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.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin made no reference to the situation in Ukraine in a speech before the parade, focusing on the historic importance of the victory over Nazi Germany. But he then headed to Crimea, where he is to oversee a massive navy parade.
In a sign of triumph, parading troops on Red Square included a marine unit from the Black Sea Fleet that flew the Crimean flag on its armored 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, honoring the armed forces and the millions who died in World War II. 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 Defense Ministry's main operational center to watch a massive military exercise that simulated a retaliatory nuclear strike in response to an enemy attack. The official statements describing the maneuvers were strikingly blunt, reflecting simmering tensions with the West.
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.