Ukrainians have celebrated 31 years of independence from the Soviet Union, and also marked six months since Russia invaded the country, in an ongoing conflict that has killed tens of thousands of people, devastated Ukraine’s economy, and turned Russia into a virtual pariah state.
Ukrainians were warned to remain vigilant on August 24 as they celebrated the date in 1991, when the legislature issued a declaration of independence from the USSR Just over three months later, more than 90 percent of Ukrainians approved a referendum formalizing the declaration.
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Acknowledging the heavy toll since the February 24 invasion, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy vowed his “reborn” country would fight Russian troops “until the end.”
“During these six months, we changed history, changed the world, and changed ourselves… We started to respect ourselves. We understood that despite any help and support, no one but us will fight for our independence. And we united,” Zelenskiy said in a recorded address broadcast to the nation.
The commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces said this week that about 9,000 Ukrainian troops had been killed in six months of fighting.
Kyiv and several other big cities have banned public celebrations amid warnings that Russia would use the occasion to strike civilians and government infrastructure.
In the Ukrainian capital, authorities staged a display of wrecked and captured Russian military vehicles and tanks on Kyiv’s famous Khreshchatyk Street, as a reminder of Moscow’s failed attempt to capture the capital.
The invasion has resulted in unprecedented Western sanctions that have pummeled the Russian economy and isolated Moscow internationally. The invasion has also prompted vast amounts of Western aid, support, and weaponry, bolstering Ukrainian defenses.
The United States, the largest single provider of weaponry, announced another $3 billion in new military aid, a mammoth package that puts US assistance at nearly $12 billion since February 24.
“On behalf of all Americans, I congratulate the people of Ukraine on their Independence Day,” President Joe Biden said in a statement announcing the package. “The United States of America is committed to supporting the people of Ukraine as they continue the fight to defend their sovereignty.”
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who made an unannounced trip to Kyiv to help mark the occasion, pledged continued British support. London has also been a major supplier of weaponry and aid to Ukraine.
What happens in Ukraine matters to us all. That is why I am in Kyiv today,” he said in a post to Twitter. “I believe Ukraine can and will win this war.”
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg paid tribute “to all those who have lost their lives or been wounded and to all Ukrainian men and women who are fighting for their country, their freedom, and their loved ones.”
“You can continue to count on NATO’s support for as long as it takes,” he said.
Russia has cited Ukraine’s aspirations to join NATO as one of the pretexts for invading.
In 2014, following months of street protests that led to the ouster of the country’s pro-Russian resident, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula and backed Russian-speaking separatists who seized parts of the eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
Since February 24, Russia has tightened its grip on Ukraine’s southern and eastern territories, although more recently, Western military officials say, the conflict has turned into a stalemate.
In his address, Zelenskiy vowed that Ukrainians will fight “until the end” and only stop once the entire country is reunited.
“Every new day is a new reason not to give up. Because, having gone through so much, we have no right not to reach the end. What is the end of the war for us? We used to say: peace. Now we say: victory,” I said.
Pope Francis, speaking at his weekly general audience on August 24, urged “concrete steps” to end the “madness,” and called for measures to avert the risk of a “nuclear disaster” at the Zaporizhzhya power plant.
Recent fighting around the Zaporizhzhya plant — Europe’s largest nuclear station — has triggered fears of a catastrophic incident.
Shattering the anniversary mood, Russia continued to pound civilian targets across Ukraine, where air raid sirens wailed intermittently.
“Air and missile strikes by the Russian occupiers against civilian targets on the territory of Ukraine continue,” the General Staff of the Ukrainian Armed Forces said in a statement. “Do not ignore air warning signals.”
Russian forces also attacked Ukrainian positions near Bakhmut and Kodema in the Donetsk region, as well as in the direction of the settlements of Pisky and Nevelske, the statement said.
Russian air defenses shot down an unspecified number of Ukrainian drones near the Crimean city of Sevastopol late on August 23, the Moscow-appointed Sevastopol governor Mikhail Razvozhayev said.
The reports could not be independently confirmed.