President Putin holds a huge rally in front of thousands of ‘Z’ flag-waving Russians
Russian President Vladimir Putin has made a rare public appearance at a rock-concert style rally in Moscow, praising the invasion of Ukraine in front of thousands of flag-waving Russians.
The rally marked the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Putin told the crowd patriotic crowd the “special operation” was aimed at ending “genocide” in the region.
“We know what we should do know and how we should do it and we will implement all our plans,” he told the crowd from a large stage in front of signs that read “For a world without Nazism / For Russia”.
The 81,000-capacity Luzhniki stadium filled with supporters on Friday, with many state employees reportedly bussed in and told they would lose their jobs if they didn’t go. Russia’s Interior Ministry claimed more 203,000 people were at the event, with 95,000 at the stadium and more than 100,000 near it, RIA news agency reported.
In what is thought to be his first public appearance since launching the invasion on 24 February, Mr Putin hailed what Russia calls its “special operation” in Ukraine, saying he aimed to set the Donbas region east of the country free from “genocide”.
He claimed the people of Donbas did not agree with the 2014 “coup” in Kyiv and were “immediately hit with punitive military operations”.
“A blockade was immediately put in place against these people. They were subjected to systematic shelling, air strikes. This is what is called genocide,” he was quoted as saying by state-owned news agency Sputnik.
A broadcast of Mr Putin’s speech on Russian state television then suddenly cut off without showing how he concluded his speech or left the stage. The Kremlin blamed the interruption on a technical glitch.
Russian state television later aired the full speech, which ended a few seconds after the cutaway with Putin leaving the stage as thousands of spectators waved Russian flags.
Concertgoers at the huge rally sang patriots songs and chanted “Russia! Russia! Russia!” People on the stage as well as banners in the crowds displayed the letter “Z”, which has become a symbol of support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as they watched a video with Ukrainian flags being thrown to the ground.
Kevin Rothrock, an editor at Meduza, an independent Russian and English-language news outlet, tweeted a video showing people leaving the stadium “before the event has even started”.
“They got their tickets punched, so they can split now”, he said.
State media announced this week that a show to celebrate the “reunification” of Russia and Crimea would be held at the stadium, which hosted games in the FIFA World Cup in 2018.
Some employees at Russian oil giant Rosneft were pressured to attend the celebratory show, sources at the company told Reuters news agency.