Ukraine was “reborn” when Russia invaded six months ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said on Wednesday, marking 31 years of Ukrainian independence from the Moscow-dominated 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 urban centres, the second-biggest city Kharkiv was under curfew, following months of frequent bombardment.
The anniversary fell exactly six months after Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine. Wednesday’s celebrations were cancelled but many people marked the day by wearing embroidered shirts that are part of the national dress.
In an emotional speech to his compatriots, Zelenskiy said Russia’s 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,” he said.
The 44-year-old leader, speaking in front of Kyiv’s central monument to independence in his trademark combat fatigues, vowed to recapture Russian-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,” he said.
He and his wife later joined religious leaders for a service in Kyiv’s St. Sophia cathedral and laid flowers at a memorial to fallen soldiers.
In its evening update, Ukraine’s army high command said Russian air and missile strikes on military and civilian targets alike continued through Wednesday. “Today was rich with air raid sirens,” the General Staff said in a note.
Ukrainian forces shot down a Russian drone in the Vinnytsia region while multiple Russian missiles landed in the Khmelnytskyi area, regional authorities said – both west of Kyiv and hundreds of kilometres from front lines.
No further details were provided and Reuters could not verify the reports.
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.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of defence ministers in Uzbekistan that Moscow had deliberately slowed down what it refers to as its “special military operation” in Ukraine to avoid civilian casualties.
INCREASING WESTERN SUPPORT
U.S. President Joe Biden announced nearly $3 billion for weapons and equipment for Ukraine in Washington’s “biggest tranche of security assistance to date”.
On a surprise visit to Kyiv on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also promised a further $63.5 million worth of military support, including 2,000 drones and loitering munitions to enable the Ukrainian military to better track and target invading Russian forces.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Ukrainians they were an inspiration to the world. “You can count on NATO’s support. For as long as it takes,” he said in a video message.
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.
Ukraine’s top military intelligence official, Kyrylo Budanov, said Russia’s offensive was slowing because of moral and physical fatigue in its ranks and Moscow’s “exhausted” resource base.
On the eastern front lines of Ukrainian resistance and in shattered cities, some with deserted streets under curfew, combatants and civilians marked Ukraine’s independence day with steadfast words and the promise of victory.
“Our nation has become more conscious and, thus, stronger, to finally give a devastating response and forever punish the (Russian) criminals,” said Mkyta Nadtochii, commander of the Azov Regiment, which in May lost the port city of Mariupol only after months of fending off a devastating Russian siege.
Russian forces have seized areas of the south including on the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts and large tracts of the eastern Donbas region comprising the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
U.S. officials have warned of likely new Russian attacks on civilian and government infrastructure in coming days.
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, creating shortages of essential food grains and pushing up energy prices.
Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union in August 1991, and its population voted overwhelmingly for independence in a referendum that December.
In southern Ukraine, both sides have accused the other of firing missiles and artillery at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, raising fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
The U.N. nuclear watchdog said it hoped to gain access soon. while Russia said it had arrested two Ukrainian employees of the plant for passing information to Ukrainian authorities.
Advanced U.S. 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 defence ministry on Twitter.
“The five main causes of sudden explosions in Russia are: winter, spring, summer, autumn and smoking,” it said.
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