Vladimir Putin praises Russian troops as assault on Ukraine’s cities continues

18 March 2022, 18:24

Vladimir Putin
Vladimir Putin delivers his speech at the concert marking the eighth anniversary of the annexation of the Crimea (Alexander Vilf/Sputnik Pool Photo via AP). Picture: PA

The Russian president praised his country’s forces at the rally to mark the eighth anniversary of Russia annexing the Crimea from Ukraine.

Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge, flag-waving rally at a Moscow stadium and praised his country’s troops in biblical terms on Friday as they pressed their lethal attacks on Ukrainian cities with shelling and missiles.

“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 anti-war protests at home. “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 for the celebration marking the eighth anniversary of Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula, seized from Ukraine.

The event included patriotic songs, including a performance of Made in the USSR, with the opening line, “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.

His quoting of the Bible and a Russian admiral of the 18th century reflected his increasing focus in recent years on history and religion as binding forces in Russia’s post-Soviet society.

Russia Crimea Reunification Anniversary
Vladimir Putin is seen on a big screen as he delivers his speech (Sputnik Pool Photo via AP)

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.

In the wake of the invasion, the Kremlin has cracked down harder on dissent and the flow of information, arresting thousands of anti-war 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.

The rally came as Russian troops continued to pound the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and launched a barrage of missiles against an aircraft repair installation at an airport on the outskirts of the western city of Lviv, close to the Polish border. One person was reported wounded.

Russia Ukraine War
A woman cries before starting to clean the site where a bombing damaged residential buildings in Kyiv, Ukraine (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

Satellite photos showed the strike destroyed a repair hangar and appeared to damage two other buildings. A row of fighter jets appeared intact, but an apparent impact crater sat in front of them.

Ukraine said it had shot down two of six missiles in the volley, which came from the Black Sea.

The early morning barrage of missiles on Lviv’s edge was the closest strike yet to the centre of the city, which has become a crossroads for people fleeing from other parts of Ukraine and for others entering to deliver aid or fight.

In city after city around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought safety have been attacked. Rescue workers were still searching for survivors in the ruins of a theatre that served as a shelter when it was blasted by a Russian airstrike on Wednesday in the besieged southern city of Mariupol.

Ludmyla Denisova, the Ukrainain parliament’s human rights commissioner, said on Friday that 130 people had survived the theatre bombing.

“As of now, we know that 130 people have been evacuated, but according to our data, there are still more than 1,300 people in these basements, in this bomb shelter,” Denisova told Ukrainian television. “We pray that they will all be alive, but so far there is no information about them.”

Russia Crimea Reunification Anniversary
Vladimir Putin, centre right on the podium, delivers his speech at the concert (Evgeny Biyatov/Sputnik Pool Photo via AP)

At Lviv, black smoke billowed for hours after the explosions, which hit a facility for repairing military aircraft near the city’s international airport, only four miles from the centre. One person was wounded, the regional governor, Maksym Kozytsky, said.

Multiple blasts hit in quick succession around 6am, shaking nearby buildings, witnesses said. The missiles were launched from the Black Sea, but the Ukrainian air force’s western command said it had shot down two of six missiles in the volley. A bus repair facility was also damaged, Lviv’s mayor, Andriy Sadovyi, said.

Lviv lies not far from the Polish border and well behind the front lines, but it and the surrounding area have not been spared Russia’s attacks. In the worst, nearly three dozen people were killed last weekend in a strike on a training facility near the city.

Lviv’s population has swelled by some 200,000 as people from elsewhere in Ukraine have sought shelter there.

Early morning barrages also hit a residential building in the Podil neighborhood of Kyiv, killing at least one person, according to emergency services, who said 98 people were evacuated from the building. Kyiv mayor, Vitali Klitschko, said 19 were wounded in the shelling.

Two others were killed when strikes hit residential and administrative buildings in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to the regional governor, Pavlo Kyrylenko.

Russia Ukraine War
A worker removes a destroyed curtain inside a school damaged among other residential buildings in Kyiv after Russian shelling (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

In Kharkiv, a massive fire raged through a local market after shelling on Thursday. One firefighter was killed and another injured when new shelling hit as emergency workers fought the blaze, emergency services said.

The World Health Organisation said it has verified 43 attacks on hospitals and health facilities, with 12 people killed and 34 injured.

US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said on Thursday that American officials were evaluating potential war crimes and that if the intentional targeting of civilians by Russia is confirmed, there will be “massive consequences”.

The United Nations political chief, undersecretary-general, Rosemary DiCarlo, also called for an investigation into civilian casualties, reminding the UN Security Council that international humanitarian law bans direct attacks on civilians.

She said many of the daily attacks battering Ukrainian cities “are reportedly indiscriminate” and involve the use of “explosive weapons with a wide impact area.” DiCarlo said the devastation in Mariupol and Kharkiv “raises grave fears about the fate of millions of residents of Kyiv and other cities facing intensifying attacks.”

About 35,000 civilians left Mariupol over the previous two days, Kirilenko said on Friday.

Russia Crimea Reunification Anniversary
People with Russian national flags and a banner reading ‘For Putin!’ gather to attend the concert in Moscow (Pavel Bednyakov/Sputnik Host Photo Agency pool via AP)

Hundreds of civilians were said to have taken shelter in a grand, columned theatre in the city’s centre when it was hit on Wednesday by a Russian airstrike. On Friday, their fate was still uncertain, with conflicting reports on whether anyone had emerged from the rubble. Communications are disrupted across the city and movement is difficult because of shelling and fighting.

“We hope and we think that some people who stayed in the shelter under the theatre could survive,” Petro Andrushchenko, an official with the mayor’s office, told the Associated Press on Thursday. He said the building had a relatively modern, basement bomb shelter designed to withstand airstrikes. Other officials said earlier that some people had gotten out.

Video and photos provided by the Ukrainian military showed the at least three-story building had been reduced to a roofless shell, with some exterior walls collapsed. Satellite imagery on Monday from Maxar Technologies showed huge white letters on the pavement outside the theatre spelling out “CHILDREN” in Russian — “DETI” — to alert warplanes to the vulnerable people hiding inside.

Russia’s military denied bombing the theatre or anyplace else in Mariupol on Wednesday.

In Chernihiv, at least 53 people were brought to morgues over 24 hours, killed amid heavy Russian air attacks and ground fire, the local governor, Viacheslav Chaus, told Ukrainian TV on Thursday.

Ukraine’s emergency services said a mother, father and three of their children, including three-year-old twins, were killed when a Chernihiv hostel was shelled. Civilians were hiding in basements and shelters across the embattled city of 280,000.

Russia Ukraine War
Policemen stand guard at the site where a bombing damaged buildings in Kyiv (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

“The city has never known such nightmarish, colossal losses and destruction,” Chaus said.

Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, said early on Friday he was thankful to President Joe Biden for additional military aid, but he would not get into specifics about the new package, saying he did not want Russia to know what to expect.

He said when the invasion began on February 24, Russia expected to find Ukraine much as it did in 2014, when Russia seized Crimea without a fight and backed separatists as they took control of the eastern Donbas region.

Instead, he said, Ukraine had much stronger defences than expected, and Russia “didn’t know what we had for defence or how we prepared to meet the blow”.

In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven leading economies accused Russian president Vladimir Putin of conducting an “unprovoked and shameful war”, and called on Russia to comply with the International Court of Justice’s order to stop its attack and withdraw its forces.

Both Ukraine and Russia this week reported some progress in negotiations. Zelensky said he would not reveal Ukraine’s negotiating tactics.

“Working more in silence than on television, radio or on Facebook,” Zelensky said. “I consider it the right way.”

Russia Ukraine War
President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a national address to the Ukrainian people on possible peace moves (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Putin spoke by phone on Friday with German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, who urged the Russian president to agree to an immediate cease-fire and called for an improvement to the humanitarian situation, a spokesman for Scholz said.

In a statement about the call, the Kremlin said Putin told the German chancellor that Ukraine had “unrealistic proposals” and was dragging out negotiations. The Kremlin also said it was evacuating civilians, and accused Ukraine of committing war crimes by shelling cities in the east.

While details of Thursday’s talks were unknown, an official in Zelensky’s office told the AP that on Wednesday, the main subject discussed was whether Russian troops would remain in separatist regions in eastern Ukraine after the war and where the borders would be.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Ukraine was insisting on the inclusion of one or more Western nuclear powers in the negotiations and on legally binding security guarantees for Ukraine.

In exchange, the official said, Ukraine was ready to discuss a neutral military status.

Russia has demanded that Nato pledge never to admit Ukraine to the alliance or station forces there.

The fighting has led more than three million people to flee Ukraine, the UN estimates. The death toll remains unknown, though Ukraine has said thousands of civilians have died.

By Press Association

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