The Russian president Vladimir Putin celebrated the eight years since his troops seized the Ukrainian region of Crimea with a bizarre rally on Friday.
Despite being accused of of committing war crimes through his attacks on civilians, the widespread Ukrainian resistance and the repeated suppression of any forms of free speech in Russia, the president told the audience: “We have not had unity like this for a long time.”
Putin also honoured those in Crimea who stood up to “neo-Nazis and radical nationals” and joined Russia, even though world leaders have rejected any claim that there is Nazism in Ukraine’s government.
In an ominous nod to the future, Putin also promised the crowd: “We know what we have to do next...we’ll definitely carry out all the plans we have made.”
The stadium speech is comparable to the kind of rallies former US president Donald Trump became famous for. The two leaders were said to have a certain kind of rapport, and the former US president has even called Putin’s Ukraine strategy a work of “genius”.
The rally speaks to the West’s concerns about Putin’s increasingly unhinged behaviour, and comes a day after current US president Joe Biden labelled him a “murderous dictator” and a “pure thug”.
What is the annexation of Crimea?
March 18, 2014, does mark Russia’s complete annexation of Crimea, although the peninsula is still not legally recognised as part of the country by the international community.
It followed an internationally discredited public vote held two days before where the people living in the peninsula were asked whether they wanted to be part of Russia or part of Ukraine.
While 97% of votes backed joining Russia, Ukraine said the referendum was illegal as it had taken place while Russian forces were in Crimea.
The 2014 annexation of Crimea is now perceived as the start of Russia’s war against Ukraine.
Did people really want to be at the rally?
Russian representatives claimed more than 200,000 people attended Friday’s celebrations. The official capacity of the stadium is 81,000, although there were crowds outside the stadium too.
But many attendees told the BBC they had been pressured by their employers in the public sector to attend.
Some students were allowed not to attend lectures as long as they went to the “concert”, while others told the BBC they had not been aware that the event was aimed at consolidating support for the Ukrainian war.
There is thought to be some support for the Russian attack on its European neighbour, but the full extent of the general public’s backing is hard to calculate.
The Kremlin has quashed any efforts to speak out against the invasion, including attempts to call it a war – Russia prefers to call it a “special military operation” – shutting down any protests or independent media outlets.
Children in their last six years of school have to now attend “My Country” lessons where they watch a video of Putin sharing his take on Ukraine’s history.
Putin is known to consider Ukraine and Russia as “brother nations” and wants them both to be under his influence in a throwback to the pre-Soviet era.
Children have been seen lining up to create the letter Z – the pro-invasion symbol which was first seen on the side of Russian tanks – and will have lessons dedicated to March 18 which aim to “form an understanding” of patriotism.
Teachers also shared a video showing people in the military are more likely to become heroes, all in honour of the “Crimean spring”.
Is the war really going well?
The Russian offensive is thought to have slowed significantly since it first began more than three weeks ago.
Russian forces are becoming increasingly violent and attacks on the west Ukraine city of Lviv shows the offensive is now spreading out.
Officials in the Ukrainian capital Kyiv say almost 90% of buildings in the city of Mariupol have now been damaged or destroyed by Russian forces, including a bomb shelter within a theatre where hundreds were sheltering.
The word “children” had been writing by Ukrainians in Russian outside for those dropping the bombs, although Kremlin representatives claim the attack was nothing to do with them.
Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Russia is actually not doing as well as it expected to in its invasion because Putin expected the country to be the same as it was in 2014, during the Crimea annexation.
He said Russia “didn’t know what we had for defence or how we prepared to meet the blow”.