Isolated but defiant Putin cheered on by 200,000 ecstatic pro-war Russians while four US soldiers die and UK convoy leaves for Ukraine
Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was cheered on by 200,000 ecstatic Russians last night, an event that was broadcast live on state television across the world’s largest country.
Russian Olympians wearing the nationalist “Z” symbol were celebrated on stage at a pro-war rally organised by Putin at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
Social media showed gymnasts Dina and Arina Averina and four Russian figure skaters on stage in the same arena that hosted the Moscow Olympic Games back in 1980.
A defiant Putin appeared on stage, cheered on by the crowd, urging all Russians to support the ongoing war in Ukraine.
Russian Army blocking cities
At the same time, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Russian forces are blockading Ukraine’s largest cities to create a “humanitarian catastrophe” with the aim of persuading Ukrainians to cooperate with them.
He said Russians are preventing supplies from reaching surrounded cities in the centre and south east of the country.
“This is a totally deliberate tactic,” Zelensky said in his night-time video address to the nation, filmed outside in Kyiv, with the presidential office in the lamplight behind him.
He said more than 9,000 people were able to leave besieged Mariupol in the past day, and in all more than 180,000 people have been able to flee to safety through humanitarian corridors.
He again appealed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to hold talks with him directly.
“It’s time to meet, time to speak. I want to be heard by everyone, especially in Moscow.”Ukraine’s president Zelensky
He noted that the 200,000 people who Mr Putin gathered in and around a Moscow stadium on Friday for a flag-waving rally was about the same number of Russian troops sent into Ukraine three weeks ago.
Mr Zelensky then asked his audience to picture the stadium filled with the thousands of Russians who have been killed, wounded or maimed in the fighting.
His comments came as Ukrainian and Russian forces fight for the Azovstal steel plant, one of the biggest in Europe, in Mariupol.
Vadym Denysenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said: “Now there is a fight for Azovstal. I can say that we have lost this economic giant.
“In fact, one of the largest metallurgical plants in Europe is actually being destroyed.”
Four US soldiers die
Four US soldiers have been killed in a plane crash during a Nato exercise in Norway unrelated to the Ukraine war.
Norway’s prime minister Jonas Gahr Store tweeted that they were killed in a crash on Friday night.
“The soldiers participated in the Nato exercise Cold Response,” he said.
UK trucks leave for Ukraine
The leader of a convoy of fire engines carrying thousands of pieces of equipment which is bound for Ukraine has described the trip as “personal”.
Mike Pitney, who with other volunteers is taking 22 vehicles and two lorries packed with equipment, said he felt he had to help out the emergency services in Ukraine after Russia invaded last month.
UK charity Fire Aid and the National Fire Chiefs Council (NFCC) sent an initial delivery to the country on March 11.
The second convoy, consisting of donations from fire services across the UK, left Ashford in Kent on Saturday morning. Donated kit includes generators, hoses and several fire trucks.
Pitney told BBC Breakfast: “For me it’s quite personal, I’ve been going out there now for 10 years to Ukraine, so I have friends and family, as far as I’m concerned, out there.
“When this happened, it was obvious that if I could lead that convoy, I would lead that convoy.
“Normally you go for six or eight (in a) convoy but the need out there outweighs the work that needs to be done to make this happen.”
He described the equipment as “past-life equipment” and that something “needed to be done with it”.
Claire Hoyland, project manager for the charity Fire Aid, said: “We gather decommissioned equipment from the UK fire and rescue services. So the equipment has reached the end of its life in the UK but it’s still perfectly usable.
“So we take it overseas, alongside training, so people around the world who haven’t got the equipment we’ve got (can use it). It’s functional.”
She said the charity’s members immediately mobilised in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Fire minister Lord Stephen Greenhalgh tweeted: “Convoy with largest ever single donation of fire and rescue equipment has set off for Ukraine: 22 vehicles, 18 fire engines and over 6,000 items of equipment, incl. acid proof chemical suits + a mass decontamination Incident Response Unit!”
Home Secretary Priti Patel said: “We are helping to ensure that crucial fire and rescue equipment and PPE donated by fire and rescue services will get to where it can directly provide succour to those brave firefighters, emergency services and volunteers on the front line in Ukraine.”
Fire Aid members have been working in partnership with the Ukrainian emergency services since 2012.