As the Russian military continued its bombardment of Ukrainian cities Friday, President Vladimir Putin’s government reportedly bussed state employees to a pro-Kremlin rally in Moscow marking the eighth anniversary of the country’s internationally-condemned annexation of Crimea and supporting the war that began nearly a month ago.
Moscow authorities claimed 200,000 people gathered “in and around” Luzhniki Stadium, with Reuters reporting that government employees were told they would be fired if they didn’t attend the rally. The Kyiv Independent reported that at least 81,000 people were in attendance.
“I can think of many different videos to show this crowd. Images from Mariupol or Kharkiv or Sumy or Volnovakha.”
Putin made a rare public appearance, addressing the crowd for several minutes about what he called the country’s “special operation” in Ukraine—the invasion which began February 24 and has killed thousands of civilians, according to Ukrainian authorities, as well as forcing about three million people to flee the country.
“We know what we should do now and how we should do it and we will implement all our plans,” Putin told the crowd, claiming that Kyiv has hit the Donbas with “punitive military operations” since 2014, when Ukraine’s Russian-aligned regime was replaced with a Western-facing government.
International observers have dismissed Putin’s claims of genocide as baseless, while historians from across the globe signed a statement last month condemning Putin’s distortion of the presence of right-wing factions in Ukraine as a problem demanding “denazification” via war.
At the rally, attendees displayed signs with the letter “Z,” a symbol of support for the military, and banners reading, “For a world without Nazism” while organizers displayed a video showing Ukrainian flags being thrown on the ground.
Moscow’s Luzhniki stadium, which hosted the World Cup final in 2018, is packed out for a pro-war rally on the anniversary of Russia’s Crimea annexation.— max seddon (@maxseddon) March 18, 2022
Lots of reports of state employees being bussed in. They’re watching a video with Ukrainian flags being thrown to the ground pic.twitter.com/fIKEzD5WnV
According to a survey conducted by several independent research organizations earlier this month, 58% of Russians support Putin’s invasion, while 23% are opposed—indicating “relatively modest support… compared with typical levels in the early stages of past incursions.”
Anti-war Russians have been internationally praised for attending protests in recent weeks, with thousands of people detained.
According to Washington Post reporter Mary Ilyushina, symbols “representing Ukraine and the West” were banned at Friday’s rally.
Huge crowd gathered at Luzhniki stadium in Moscow to attend “Crimean Spring” event where Putin is expected to speak today. Multiple reports of students and workers of state enterprises bussed in. Baza reported that any symbols “representing Ukraine and the West” are banned. pic.twitter.com/H2HnCL51qH— Mary Ilyushina (@maryilyushina) March 18, 2022
As Putin spoke and pro-Russia songs were performed at the rally, hundreds of people were unaccounted for at a theater in the besieged port city of Mariupol, where city officials say they have identified 2,400 civilians killed in the attacks.
An early morning missile attack in the western city of Lviv, less than 50 miles from the Polish border, was also reported, sparking concerns that Russia’s attacks could spread westward.
According to the World Health Organization, Russian forces have attacked at least 43 hospitals and health facilities, including a maternity hospital, killing at least 12 people and injuring 34.
“I can think of many different videos to show this crowd,” tweeted BBC correspondent Sarah Rainsford, who was expelled from Moscow last year after being labeled a national security threat, of the rally-goers gathered at Luzhniki Stadium. “Images from Mariupol or Kharkiv or Sumy or Volnovakha… I just don’t think many in Luzhniki would even believe their eyes anymore.”
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