President Vladimir Putin has used his first visit to Crimea since that Ukrainian republic's recent annexation by Russia to hail the peninsula's return "to the fold of the motherland."
He was speaking on a May 9 visit to the port of Sevastopol to mark the end of World War II that the Ukrainian government labeled "a provocation" and "another confirmation that Russia is deliberately pursuing a further escalation of tensions in Ukrainian-Russian relations."
Putin spoke after he had reviewed naval ships and aircraft in Sevastopol, where Russia's Black Sea Fleet is based.
He said the return of Crimea confirmed a "historic truth." He expressed his gratitude to the veterans of World War II in attendance, whom he said had contributed to the return of Crimea back to the Russian Federation.
Crimea was annexed from Ukraine by Moscow in March following a hastily organized referendum under Russian occupation.
Putin also laid flowers at a memorial to the Defenders of Sevastopol.
Putin arrived in Crimea earlier on May 9 to mark the 69th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.
Sevastopol is also marking the 70th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi Germany.
WATCH: Russian military parade in Sevastopol on May 9:
Putin earlier presided over a massive military parade in Red Square in Moscow to mark Victory Day.
Ukraine's government protested Putin's visit to Crimea, saying in a statement that "Ukraine expresses its strong protest over the unapproved May 9 visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to the Autonomous Republic of Crimea and to Sevastopol city, which are temporarily occupied by Russia."
The statement said further that "such a provocation is yet another confirmation that Russia is deliberately pursuing a further escalation of tensions in Ukrainian-Russian relations."
Speaking in Tallinn on May 9, NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen called Putin's visit "inappropriate."
Rasmussen said NATO considers the Russian annexation of Crimea to be illegal and that "from my knowledge, the Ukrainian authorities haven't invited Putin."
He also said there's no "visible evidence" of Russian claims of a troop withdrawal from the border with Ukraine.
"This trip is provocative and unnecessary," U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters in Washington. "Crimea belongs to Ukraine and we don't recognize, of course, the illegal and illegitimate steps by Russia in that regard."
She added, in a reference to a deal struck in Geneva last month that both sides have accused the other of failing to implement: "We would welcome any step Russia would be willing to take to defuse tensions in accordance with its Geneva commitments. We've seen their words before, what we're waiting for is actions and if this crisis is going to end, we need their words to be made real."
With reporting by Interfax, Reuters, and AFP