Putin hails Russia's fighters in Ukraine at rally in Moscow

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MOSCOW (Reuters) - President Vladimir Putin hailed Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine during a rally in Moscow on Wednesday, calling on the crowds to chant "Russia, Russia" to show their support for those he said were defending the fatherland.

Tens of thousands of people packed into Moscow's Luzhniki Stadium, which has a capacity of 81,000, waving white, blue and red Russian flags and listening to patriotic songs before Putin arrived.

"They fight heroically, courageously, bravely. We are proud of them," Putin said at the "Glory to Defenders of the Fatherland" event, held on the eve of Russia's Feb. 23 holiday celebrating those who serve in the armed forces.

"Today they are supported by the whole country," Putin said of Russian forces in Ukraine, adding he had just been updated by military chiefs on the situation at the front. "When we are together, we have no equal. To the unity of the Russian people."

The Kremlin casts the war as a "special military operation" to protect Russia's own security in what it sees as an existential confrontation with the West.

The conflict in Ukraine started in 2014 after a pro-Russian president was toppled in Ukraine's 'Maidan Revolution' protests and Russia annexed Crimea. Fighting also erupted in eastern Ukraine between Russian-backed separatists and Ukrainian forces.

Putin ordered tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine on Feb. 24 last year, a decision that Western powers and Ukraine have branded an imperial-style land grab. Ukraine has said it will not rest until every last Russian soldier is ejected from Ukrainian territory, including Crimea.

(Reporting by Reuters; Editing by Gareth Jones)