Vladimir Putin made his first appearance on Friday, March 18, since the start of what the Kremlin called a special operation to degrade Ukraine’s military capabilities. The mass meeting was held at a Moscow stadium, where the Russian leader lavished praise on his troops fighting in Ukraine, according to the Associated Press. 

Putin praised the heroism of Russian soldiers deployed in Ukraine to heated applause from the crowd. “Shoulder to shoulder, they help and support each other,” the Russian president said. “We have not had unity like this for a long time,” he added.

The event was broadcast live on Russian channels, where the president’s speech was suddenly cut off for 15 minutes. Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said the sudden interruption was due to a technical failure.

Moscow police said there were some 200,000 people among those inside and around the Luzhniki stadium. 

The official full-stadium gathering featuring music and nationalist speeches and Russian flags was held to mark the eighth anniversary of the 2014 annexation of Crimea. 

In addition to nationalist chants, the event featured Russian singer Oleg Gazmanov who performed “Made in the USSR,” a song that begins with the verse, “Ukraine and Crimea, Belarus and Moldova, it’s all my country.”

Putin spoke from a stage where hung a banner with the phrase, “For a world without Nazism.” From there the Russian leader lashed out at his enemies in Ukraine, whom he called “neo-Nazis,” according to AP.

“The main reason for this special operation,” he said in his speech, is to save people from suffering, and to prevent this genocide against the population.

Wearing a blue jacket and a white turtleneck sweater, Putin spoke for about five minutes. Among his words he also quoted a passage from the Bible: “There is no greater love than giving up one’s soul for one’s friends”. 

After his brief speech, Putin was cheered for several minutes by those present, until fireworks and a choir performance began. 

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