Putin pays tribute to Russian national unity as fighting grinds on in Ukraine


President Vladimir Putin on Thursday hailed Russian national unity, even as fighting raged on in Ukraine, in a state-of-the-nation address ahead of next month's election he's all but certain to win.

Speaking to an audience of lawmakers and top officials televised live nationwide, Putin said that Russia was "defending its sovereignty and security and protecting our compatriots" in Ukraine.

He hailed Russian soldiers and honored those who were killed in fighting with a moment of silence.

Putin, 71, who is running as an independent candidate in the March 15-17 presidential election, relies on the tight control over Russia's political system that he has established during 24 years in power.

Prominent critics who could challenge him have either been imprisoned or are living abroad, while most independent media have been banned, meaning that Putin's reelection is all but assured. He faces token opposition from three other candidates nominated by Kremlin-friendly parties represented in parliament.

Russia's best-known opposition leader Alexei Navalny, whose attempt to run against Putin in 2018 was rejected, died suddenly in an Arctic prison colony earlier this month, while serving a 19-year sentence on extremism charges. Navalny's funeral is set for Friday.

Putin has repeatedly said that he sent troops into Ukraine in February 2022 to protect Russian interests and prevent Ukraine from posing a major security threat to Russia by joining NATO. Kyiv and its allies have denounced it as an unprovoked act of aggression.

The Russian leader has repeatedly signaled a desire to negotiate an end to the fighting but warned that Russia will hold onto its gains.

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