By Blake Neff - 05/09/14 08:06 AM EDT
Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to the disputed Crimea region Friday to attend Victory Day celebrations in the port city of Sevastopol, his first visit to the area since its annexation by Russia in March.
Putin departed for Sevastopol immediately after attending festivities in Moscow's Red Square, where thousands of Russian soldiers marched in the day's traditional military parade.
Crimea was annexed following a disputed referendum in March, after pro-Russian elements took control of the government there. The peninsula is now under de facto Russian control after the evacuation of Ukrainian personnel, although the United States, along with most of the world, refuses to recognize the annexation officially.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel had previously remarked that it would be a "pity" if Putin used the Victory Day celebrations as a means to make his first visit to the area.
Victory Day, a public holiday in Russia as well as many ex-Soviet and Eastern European states, commemorates the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II. The USSR, which both Russia and Ukraine were then a part of, saw more than 20 million people die in the conflict.
In Ukraine, the equivalent holiday is Memorial Day, which is celebrated on both Thursday and Friday. Ukrainian officials chose to commemorate the holiday with a low-key wreath-laying ceremony, fearful that any larger celebration could stoke violence.
Pro-Russian insurgents in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk plan to hold unofficial referendums Sunday regarding whether the areas should secede from Ukraine. Putin himself publicly encouraged the insurgents Wednesday to back down and postpone the votes, but they still plan to proceed.
Ukraine plans to hold an election for a new president on May 25.