US: Putin visit to Crimea fuels tensions

Russian President Vladimir Putin's first visit to Crimea since Moscow moved to annex the Ukrainian peninsula will only “fuel tensions” in the region, the White House warned Friday.

The Russian president traveled to Crimea on Friday to mark the anniversary of Nazi Germany's unconditional surrender to Allied forces, marking the end of World War II in Europe. 

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Putin surveyed a military parade in the port city of Sevastopol and hailed the “return to the motherland” of the Crimean people in a speech marking Victory Day.

Putin called the return of Crimea to Russia a tribute to the “historical justice and the memory of our ancestors,” The Associated Press reported.

The Obama administration has criticized Putin repeatedly for causing unrest in Ukraine. The United States did not recognize a referendum in Crimea in which voters decided to leave Ukraine and join Russia.

“We do not accept Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea,” National Security Council spokeswoman Laura Lucas Magnuson said in a statement.

“Such a visit will only serve to fuel tensions,” she said of Putin’s trip.

Later Friday, White House press secretary Jay Carney called Putin's appearance "certainly not helpful" in an interview with MSNBC.
 
"Any effort that he engages in that further destabilizes the situation in the rest of Ukraine, including in the east and the south, is very unhelpful," Carney said.
 
The White House spokesman reiterated threats that the U.S. could impose greater sanctions on Russia if Putin is deemed to be worsening conditions in other regions of southern and Eastern Ukraine.
 
 And Carney said the U.S. had "not seen any sign yet" that Putin was following through with his pledge earlier this week to draw down the tens of thousands of troops amassed just across the border with Ukraine. Putin had said he would move the troops away from the border in a bid to calm tensions.
 
Putin is visiting the disputed territory amid continued violence between Kiev and pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine's southern and eastern regions. As many as 20 people were killed and a police station in Mariupol was set on fire Friday as the Ukrainian military sought to remove separatist occupiers from government buildings.

The trip also preceded a planned independence referendum Sunday in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that has been denounced by the White House and other Western allies. Crimea staged a similar referendum ahead of Moscow's move to officially annex the peninsula, although Putin said earlier this week that separatists in the area should delay their vote.

Other Western leaders also denounced Putin's visit, calling move provocative.

“We consider the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal, illegitimate and we don't recognize it,” said NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, according to the AP. “We still consider Crimea as Ukrainian territory and from my knowledge the Ukrainian authorities haven't invited Putin to visit Crimea, so from that point of view his visit to Crimea is inappropriate.” 

Putin's visit also precedes another potentially awkward World War II commemoration next month, when he will join President Obama and other European leaders in Normandy to mark the 70th anniversary of D-Day. The White House said Thursday that there were no plans for Obama and Putin to meet during the trip. 

This story was updatd at 1:09 p.m.