President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge patriotic rally Friday at a Moscow stadium on the eighth anniversary of the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine.
Putin, speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands of people waving Russian flags at the Luzhniki Stadium, praised the Russian military for its actions in Ukraine.
“Shoulder to shoulder, they help and support each other,” Putin said of Moscow's forces in a rare public appearance since the invasion three weeks ago that made Russia an outcast among nations and triggered antiwar protests at home. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he added to cheers from the crowd.
Before Putin spoke, bands played patriotic Soviet songs about national identity, including a performance of “Made in the U.S.S.R.,” with the opening lines “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”
Seeking to portray the war as just, Putin paraphrased the Bible to say of Russia's troops: "There is no greater love than giving up one’s soul for one’s friends.” And he continued to insist his actions were necessary to prevent “genocide,” a claim flatly denied by leaders around the globe.
Standing on stage in a white turtleneck and a blue down jacket, Putin spoke for about five minutes. Some people, including presenters at the event, wore T-shirts or jackets with a “Z” — a symbol seen on Russian tanks and other military vehicles in Ukraine and embraced by supporters of the war.
Moscow police said more than 200,000 people were in and around the Luzhniki stadium for the celebration.
Video feeds of the event showed a loudly cheering, flag-waving crowd that broke into chants of “Russia!”
Several Telegram channels critical of the Kremlin reported that students and employees of state institutions in a number of regions were ordered by their superiors to attend rallies and concerts marking the Crimea anniversary. Those reports could not be independently verified.
This is a live update. Click here for complete coverage of the crisis in Ukraine.