Russian President Vladimir Putin flew to Crimea on Friday for parades marking the Soviet victory in World War Two, his first visit since annexing the peninsula from a Ukraine.
The visit has been criticized by the United States and NATO.
The White House warned that Putin’s visit would only exacerbate the crisis in Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists prepare to hold a referendum for the secession of the eastern region.
“We do not accept Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea. Such a visit will only serve to fuel tensions,” U.S. National Security Council spokesman Laura Magnuson said.
Russia annexed Crimea last month after a referendum held by pro-Russian militants called for the territory's rule by Moscow.
The crisis has since shifted to eastern Ukraine where Kiev has struggled to put down a similar uprising by pro-Russian militants.
Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the head of NATO, on Friday urged Russia to “step back from the brink” and described President Putin's visit to Crimea as inappropriate.
“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,” he said.
The NATO chief accused Russia of destabilizing the security situation in Europe, the Associated Press reported.
“My first message is to Russia. Step back from the brink,” he said. He also reassured Estonia and Baltic neighbors Latvia and Lithuania that as NATO members they can count on the alliance's “rock solid” commitment to defend them.
In the wake of the Ukraine crisis NATO has boosted its air patrols and naval presence in the three Baltic countries, which joined NATO in 2004 despite Russian objections.
Fogh Rasmussen said a 1997 NATO-Russia pact allows the alliance to send reinforcements when there is a threat of aggression.
“And we clearly see such a threat now,” he said.
During a military parade on Friday in Moscow’s Red Square, Putin praised the strength of Russia's “all-conquering” patriotism.
“This is a holiday when all-conquering patriotic force triumphs, when we all feel especially strongly what it means to be true to the Motherland and how important it is to be able to stand up for its interests,” Putin told massed troops to shouts of “Hurrah!.”
Victory Day is Russia's most important secular holiday and a key element of its national identity, reflecting the country’s enormous suffering and honoring millions of victims of World War II.
The nation's massive military arsenal is usually displayed at the celebration.
About 11,000 troops proudly marched across Red Square to the tunes of marches and patriotic songs. Around 150 military vehicles and 70 combat aircraft took part in the show.
[With AP and AFP]