By CARA ANNA
Russian President Vladimir Putin appeared at a huge rally of flags in a crowded Moscow stadium on Friday and praised his troops fighting in Ukraine, three weeks after the start of an invasion that resulted in Russian casualties heavier than expected on the battlefield and increasingly authoritarian rule at home.
Meanwhile, the head of the Russian delegation to the diplomatic talks with Ukraine said the sides had narrowed their differences. The Ukrainian side said its position remained unchanged.
The invasion sparked a wave of anti-war protests in Russia, and the Moscow rally was shrouded in suspicion that it was a Kremlin-manufactured show of patriotism. Several Kremlin-critical Telegram channels reported that students and employees of state institutions in a number of regions had been ordered by their superiors to attend rallies and concerts marking the eighth anniversary of the annexation of Crimea by Moscow, which was seized from Ukraine. These reports could not be independently verified.
Elsewhere, Russian troops continued to rain deadly fire on Ukrainian cities, including the capital, Kyiv, and pounded an aircraft repair facility on the outskirts of Lviv, near the Polish border. Ukrainian officials said late Friday that the beleaguered port city of Mariupol had lost its access to the Sea of Azov and Russian forces were still trying to storm the city. We didn’t know if they had seized it.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Russian forces were blockading major cities to create a “humanitarian catastrophe” in a bid to persuade Ukrainians to cooperate. He said the Russians were preventing supplies from reaching surrounded towns in central and southeastern Ukraine.
“It’s a totally deliberate tactic,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly video address to the nation, which was recorded outside Kyiv, with the presidential office behind him.
In a rare public appearance by Putin since the start of the war, he praised Russian troops: “Embel to elbow, they help and support each other,” he said. “We haven’t had such unity for a long time,” he added to cheers from the crowd.
Moscow police said more than 200,000 people were in and around Luzhniki Stadium. The event featured patriotic songs, including a performance of “Made in the USSR”, with the opening lines “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, this is my whole country”.
Seeking to portray war as just, Putin paraphrased the Bible to say of Russian troops: “There is no greater love than to lay down your soul for your friends.
Going up on stage where a sign read “For a world without Nazism”, he rebelled against his enemies in Ukraine by claiming without foundation that they were “neo-Nazis”. Putin continued to insist that his actions were necessary to prevent “genocide” – an idea flatly rejected by world leaders.
Video feeds of the event cut out at times, but showed a cheering crowd erupting in chants of “Russia!”
Putin’s appearance marked a change from his relative isolation of recent weeks, when he was shown meeting world leaders and his staff either at extraordinarily long tables or via video conference.
Following the invasion, the Kremlin further cracked down on dissent and the flow of information, arresting thousands of anti-war protesters, banning sites such as Facebook and Twitter, and instituting heavy prison sentences for those who is considered fake reporting on the war, which Moscow calls a “special military operation.”
Rights group OVD-Info, which monitors political arrests, reported that at least seven independent journalists were arrested before or while covering the anniversary events in Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Above the conflict, three Russian cosmonauts arrived at the International Space Station on Friday wearing bright yellow flight suits with blue accents to match 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 message, if any, the yellow uniforms were meant to send.
When cosmonaut Oleg Artemyev was asked about the yellow suits, he said each crew chose their own suits and they had a lot of yellow gear to use “that’s why we had to wear yellow”.
Since the beginning of the war, many people have used the Ukrainian flag and its colors to show their solidarity with the country.
Back in Moscow, Putin took the stage in a white turtleneck and blue puffer 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 adopted by war supporters.
Putin’s citation of the Bible and an 18th-century Russian admiral reflects his growing attention in recent years to history and religion as constraining 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 fatherland against Germany during World War II.
The rally came as Vladimir Medinsky, who led Russian negotiators in several rounds of talks with Ukraine, said the parties were closing in on an agreement on the issue of Ukraine’s abandonment of its candidacy for NATO and the adoption of a neutral status.
“This is the issue on which the parties have come as close as possible to their positions,” Medinsky said in comments carried by Russian media. He added that the parties were now “halfway” on issues concerning the demilitarization of Ukraine.
Mikhailo Podolyak, an adviser to Zelenskyy, called the Russian assessment “causing tension in the media”. He tweeted: “Our positions are unchanged. Ceasefire, withdrawal of troops and strong security guarantees with concrete formulas.
Zelenskyy again appealed to Putin to speak directly with him. “It’s time to meet, to talk,” he said. “I want to be heard by everyone, especially in Moscow.”
In other developments, US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping spoke for nearly two hours in a bid for the US to dissuade Beijing from providing military or economic assistance to invading Russia.
Earlier on Friday, one person was reportedly killed in the missile attack near Lviv. Satellite photos showed the strike destroyed a repair shed and appeared to damage two other buildings. Ukraine said it shot down two of the six missiles in the volley, which came from the Black Sea.
The morning attack was the closest strike yet to central Lviv, which has become a crossroads for people fleeing other parts of Ukraine and for others entering to deliver aid or join the fight. The war swelled the city’s population by about 200,000 people.
Zelenskyy boasted that Ukraine’s defenses turned out to be much stronger than expected, and Russia “didn’t know what we had for the defense or how we were preparing to take the hit”.
But Britain’s defense intelligence chief, Lt. Gen. Jim Hockenhull, has warned that after failing to take key Ukrainian cities, Russian forces are turning to an “attrition strategy” that will lead to “reckless use and indiscriminate firepower”, resulting in increased civilian casualties. and a worsening of the humanitarian crisis.
In town after town around Ukraine, hospitals, schools and buildings where people sought shelter were attacked. Rescuers continued to search for survivors in the ruins of a theater that was serving as a shelter when it was blasted by a Russian airstrike in Mariupol on Wednesday.
Ludmyla Denisova, Ukrainian parliament’s human rights commissioner, said at least 130 people survived the theater bombing.
“But according to our data, there are still more than 1,300 people in those basements, in that bomb shelter,” Denisova told Ukrainian television. “We are praying they are all alive, but so far there is no information about them.”
On Friday, satellite images from Maxar Technologies showed a long line of cars leaving Mariupol as people tried to evacuate, as well as the devastation of homes, apartment buildings and shops.
Early morning barrages also hit a residential building in kyiv’s Podil district, killing at least one person, according to emergency services, which said 98 people had been evacuated from the building. Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said 19 people were injured in the shelling.
Ukrainian officials said a firefighter was killed when Russian forces shelled an area where firefighters were trying to put out a fire in the village of Nataevka, Zaporizhzhia region.
Two other people were killed when strikes hit residential and administrative buildings in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, according to regional governor Pavlo Kyrylenko.
Major General Oleksandr Pavlyuk, who leads the defense of the region around the Ukrainian capital, said his forces were well positioned to defend the city and vowed: “We will never give up. We will fight until the end. Until the last breath and until the last ball.
Associated Press writer Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Ukraine, and other AP reporters from around the world contributed to this report.
Follow AP coverage of the war at https://apnews.com/hub/russia-ukraine