KYIV — Ukraine was “reborn” when Russia invaded six months ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday, marking 31 years of his country’s independence from the Moscow-controlled Soviet Union with a vow to drive Russian forces out completely.
After days of warnings that Moscow could use the anniversary of Ukraine’s Independence Day to launch more missile attacks on major cities, the second largest city Kharkiv was under curfew after months of bombing.
The anniversary fell exactly six months after Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine. Celebrations were canceled but many people marked the day by wearing vishivankas – embroidered shirts that are part of Ukraine’s national dress.
In an emotional speech to his compatriots, Zelenskiy said the attack had revived the nation’s spirit.
“A new nation appeared in the world on Feb. 24 at 4 in the morning. It was not born, but reborn. A nation that did not cry, scream or take fright. One that did not flee. Did not give up. And did not forget,” I said.
The 44-year-old leader, speaking in front of Kyiv’s central monument to independence in his trademark combat fatigues, vowed to recapture occupied areas of eastern Ukraine as well as the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
“We will not sit down at the negotiating table out of fear, with a gun pointed at our heads. For us, the most terrible iron is not missiles, aircraft and tanks, but shackles. Not trenches, but fetters,” I said.
He and his wife later attended a service in Kyiv’s St. Sophia cathedral along with religious leaders from all of Ukraine’s major faiths.
Russia has made few advances in Ukraine in recent months, after its troops were pushed back from Kyiv in the early weeks of the war. Ukrainian soldiers on the front line in the east said they were more motivated than their enemy.
“All of our people are cheering for us,” a soldier called Yevhen told Reuters, declining to give his last name. “The whole country is, and other countries who help us too. Our fighting spirit is greater than theirs.”
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of defense ministers in Uzbekistan that Russia had deliberately slowed down what it refers to as its “special military operation” in Ukraine to avoid civilian casualties.
On Tuesday evening, Zelenskiy warned of the possibility of “repugnant Russian provocations” and on Wednesday, Ukraine’s military urged people to take air raid warnings seriously, reporting new air and missile attacks on civilian buildings.
The war has killed thousands of civilians, forced more than a third of Ukraine’s 41 million people from their homes, left cities in ruins, and shaken the global economy. It is largely at a standstill with no immediate prospect of peace talks.
As well as Crimea, Russian forces have seized areas of the south including the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts, and chunks of the eastern Donbas region comprising the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Almost 9,000 Ukrainian military personnel have been killed in the war, its military said this week. Kyiv says the invasion is an unprovoked act of imperial aggression.
Russia has not publicized its losses but US intelligence estimates 15,000 killed in what Moscow describes as an operation necessitated by threats to its security.
Moscow has set prison terms of five years for anyone referring to its actions in Ukraine as an invasion.
Russian opposition politician Yevgeny Roizman was shown being detained at his home in a video published on social media on Wednesday, telling reporters he was being arrested “basically for one phrase, ‘the invasion of Ukraine’.”
Moscow has installed officials in areas of Ukraine it controls but some have been assassinated. The head of the town of Mykhailivka in the Russian-controlled part of Zaporizhzhia region was killed by a car bomb on Wednesday.
Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991 after a failed putsch by Communist hardliners in Moscow, and its population voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that December.
NUCLEAR PLANT HOPES
Both sides have accused the other of firing missiles and artillery at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine, Europe’s biggest, raising fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said the UN nuclear watchdog hoped to gain access within days if negotiations succeeded. The United Nations has called for the area to be demilitarized.
Western countries offered Ukraine more military support, with Norway saying it and Britain would supply micro drones to help with target identification and the United States expected to announce a new security package of about $3 billion.
The Secretary General of the NATO Western defense alliance told Ukrainians they were an inspiration to the world.
“You can count on NATO’s support. For as long as it takes,” Jens Stoltenberg said in a video message.
Advanced US missile systems appear to have helped Ukraine strike deep behind the front lines in recent months, taking out ammunition dumps and command posts.
In the latest mysterious fire at a Russian military facility, Russian officials said ammunition stored in the south near the border with Ukraine spontaneously combusted on Tuesday.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Belgorod region, blamed hot weather for the fire, drawing ridicule from Ukraine’s defense ministry on Twitter.
“The five main causes of sudden explosions in Russia are: winter, spring, summer, autumn and smoking,” it said.
(Additional reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Max Hunder, Andrea Shalal, Olzhas Auyezov, John Chalmers and Reuters bureaux; writing by Stephen Coates and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Gareth Jones, Jon Boyle and Catherine Evans)