President Vladimir Putin said Wednesday Russia was fighting for its "historical" lands in Ukraine, at a state-organized patriotic rally in Moscow in support of the Ukraine offensive.

"I just heard from the top military leadership of the country that a battle is ongoing right now, for our historical lands, for our people," Putin said.

In a short address to the tens of thousands gathered at Moscow's main Luzhniki stadium, Putin also praised Russian servicemen in Ukraine who are "fighting heroically, courageously, bravely: we are proud of them".

All those who supported the Russian army were "to a certain extent also a defender of the fatherland", he added.

"This includes healthcare workers, employees of the defense and transport sectors... and you all, who came today to support our fighters."

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The audience, waving Russian flags, braved cold winter temperatures of -15 degrees Celsius (5 degrees Fahrenheit), to come watch patriotic performances and speeches.

Among them was Ulyana, a 47-year-old lawyer, who told AFP she came for "our president, our men who are defending our country.

"What is happening right now, the consolidation of national unity, reminds us of the Great Patriotic War," she said, using the Russian term for World War II.

- 'Great Patriotic War' -

The concert, dubbed "Glory to the Defenders of the Fatherland", was held on the eve of the eponymous Russian public holiday, and two days before the anniversary of the Ukraine offensive on February 24.

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Top of the agenda is a plan to finance crucial aid to Ukraine using the interest generated by the 300 billion euros ($325 billion) of Russian central bank assets frozen by the G7 and Europe.

Rock star Grigory Leps opened the show with a song in honour of Russia. Displayed on screens around the stadium, were images of "The Motherland Calls" statue in the city of Volgograd, scene of the World War II battle for Stalingrad, as it was then called.

Putin, when he launched what he described as the special military operation in Ukraine, argued that the treatment of Russian speakers there was comparable with the actions of Nazi Germany.

As the offensive dragged on, the Kremlin whipped up support by characterizing its campaign as a wider conflict against the West, the equivalent of the "Great Patriotic War" against Nazi Germany.

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Also present in the crowd was the Kremlin-appointed leader of the Donetsk region, Denis Pushilin, who repeated Moscow's claims of "Nazi ideology" in the Ukrainian government.

"The West is an accomplice to (Ukrainian) war crimes" Pushilin said.

Organizers brought on stage children from the Ukrainian Donbas, including from the port city of Mariupol in Donetsk, which was devastated by a long siege before Russia captured it.

Ukraine has accused Russia of kidnapping thousands of Ukrainian children from the territories it controls, something Moscow has denied, insisting it organized legal adoptions.        

 

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