Vladimir Putin Visits Crimea on Russia's WWII Victory Day Celebrations

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Russian President Vladimir Putin said Crimea had been "returned to its home country" during a visit to the recently annexed peninsula Friday for Russia's Victory Day celebrations.

His visit to the Black Sea peninsula was a bullish signal of defiance to the U.S. and Europe, both of whom condemned Moscow's annexation of the region in March as illegal under international law.

Putin traveled there for the 69th anniversary of Victory Day, marking Nazi Germany's capitulation to the Soviet Union in 1945. This year's celebrations have been the most prominent in decades, boosted by the acquisition of Crimea and Putin's strongman stance over Ukraine.

Vladimir Putin, accompanied by Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Chief of the Black Sea Fleet Alexander Vitko, attends a parade in Sevastopol, Crimea, on Friday.SERGEI ILNITSKY / EPA

The Russian leader told veterans at the parade in Crimea's largest city Sevastapol that the region was "returned to its home country thanks to their great moral contribution."

"There is a lot of work ahead but we will overcome all difficulties because we are together, which means we have become stronger," he added.

Putin watched a procession of Russian ships and a flyby by its jets, mirroring the day's main celebrations in Moscow's Red Square.

Ukraine's Foreign Ministry immediately condemned the visit as an escalation of tensions in the region, and NATO labeled it "inappropriate."

Crimea has gone in and out of Russian and Ukrainian ownership, but for a large part of the 20th century it was a key Soviet port used by its imperious Black Sea Fleet, which still docks there today.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said on Wednesday that it would be a pity if Putin used the anniversary to visit Crimea.

A smaller parade also took place ineastern Ukraine, where armed pro-Russian groups have seized buildings and are holding a referendum to join Russia this weekend.

- Alexander Smith