Putin appears at big rally as troops press attack in Ukraine

  • A woman walks by a memorial wall Friday for those who lost their lives since the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine in Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda)

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at a concert Friday in Moscow, Russia. (Sergei Guneyev/Sputnik Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge flag-waving rally at a packed Moscow stadium Friday and lavished praise on his troops fighting in Ukraine, three weeks into the invasion that has led to heavier-than-expected Russian losses on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home.

Meanwhile, the leader of Russia’s delegation in diplomatic talks with Ukraine said the sides have narrowed their differences. The Ukrainian side said its position remained unchanged.

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The invasion has touched off a burst of antiwar protests inside Russia, and the Moscow rally was surrounded by suspicions it was a Kremlin-manufactured display of patriotism. 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 eighth anniversary of Moscow’s annexation of Crimea, which was seized from Ukraine. Those reports could not be independently verified.

Elsewhere, Russian troops continued to rain lethal fire on Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kyiv, and pounded an aircraft repair installation on the outskirts of Lviv, close to the Polish border. Ukrainian officials said late Friday that the besieged southern port city of Mariupol lost its access to the Azov Sea, and Russian forces were still trying to storm the city. It was unclear whether they had seized it.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces are blockading the largest cities to create a “humanitarian catastrophe” with the goal of persuading Ukrainians to cooperate. He said the Russians are preventing supplies from reaching surrounded cities in central and southeastern Ukraine.

“This is a totally deliberate tactic,” Zelenskyy said in his nighttime video address to the nation, which was recorded outside in Kyiv, with the presidential office behind him.

In a rare public appearance by Putin since the start of the war, he praised Russian troops: “Shoulder to shoulder, they help and support each other,” he said. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he added to cheers from the crowd.

Moscow police said more than 200,000 people were in and around the Luzhniki stadium. The event included patriotic songs, 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.”

Taking to the stage where a sign read “For a world without Nazism,” he railed against his foes in Ukraine with a baseless claim that they are “neo-Nazis.” Putin continued to insist his actions were necessary to prevent “genocide” — an idea flatly rejected by leaders around the globe.

Video feeds of the event cut out at times but showed a loudly cheering crowd that broke into chants of “Russia!”

Putin’s appearance marked a change from his relative isolation of recent weeks, when he has been shown meeting with world leaders and his staff either at extraordinarily long tables or via videoconference.

In the wake of the invasion, the Kremlin has clamped down harder on dissent and the flow of information, arresting thousands of antiwar protesters, banning sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and instituting tough prison sentences for what is deemed to be false reporting on the war, which Moscow refers to as a “special military operation.”

The OVD-Info rights group that monitors political arrests reported that at least seven independent journalists had been detained ahead of or while covering the anniversary events in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

High above the conflict, three Russian cosmonauts arrived Friday at the International Space Station wearing bright yellow flight suits with blue accents matching the colors of the Ukrainian flag. Video of one of the cosmonauts taken as the capsule prepared to dock with the space station showed him wearing a blue flight suit. It was unclear what, if any, message the yellow uniforms were intended to send.

When cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev was asked about the yellow suits, he said every crew chooses its own suits, and they had a lot of yellow material they needed to use “so that’s why we had to wear yellow.”

Since the war started, many people have used the Ukrainian flag and its colors to show solidarity with the country.

Back in Moscow, Putin stood on stage in a white turtleneck and a blue down jacket and 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.

Putin’s quoting of the Bible and an 18th-century Russian admiral reflected his increasing focus in recent years on history and religion as binding forces in Russia’s post-Soviet society. His branding of his enemies as Nazis evoked what many Russians consider their country’s finest hour, the defense of the motherland from Germany during World War II.

The rally came as Vladimir Medinsky, who led Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, said that the sides have moved closer to agreement on the issue of Ukraine dropping its bid to join NATO and adopting a neutral status.

“That is the issue where the parties have made their positions maximally close,” Medinsky said in remarks carried by Russian media. He added that the sides are now “halfway” on issues regarding the demilitarization of Ukraine.

Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, characterized the Russian assessment as intended “to provoke tension in the media.” He tweeted: “Our positions are unchanged. Ceasefire, withdrawal of troops &strong security guarantees with concrete formulas.”

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