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Ukraine celebrates statehood amid conflict

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Picture: AFP – People look at destroyed Russian military equipment displayed in an open-air military museum in Khreshchatyk street in Kyiv, as part of Ukraine’s Independence Day celebrations this week, amid Russia’s invasion of their country.

By Steve Hendrix, John Hudson and Serhiy Morgunov

To mark its first Independence Day since Russian President Vladimir Putin sent his troops to conquer the country, Ukraine is holding a ghost parade.

Khreschatyk Street, Kyiv’s grandest boulevard, is lined this week with the carcasses of burned and battered Russian fighting machines, destroyed in Ukraine’s surprisingly robust defence against the invasion launched by Moscow six months ago. The “procession” of more than 70 treadless tanks and crumpled artillery launchers is a bizarre inversion of the triumphant procession Russian commanders had hoped to conduct through a captured capital.

“The Russians wanted to drive this parade through Kyiv, but our military has done it for them,” said Vasyl Radchenko, who was visiting from his home on the outskirts of the city and choked back tears as he gazed along a cavalcade of mangled iron.

Ukraine’s 31st Independence Day was on Wednesday, and the street display replaced the public ceremonies that were cancelled amid a raging war, warnings of Russian missile strikes and a ban on mass gatherings for the holiday week. None of those fears stopped thousands of Ukrainians from coming out to take gloating selfies and adorn the metal hulks with unprintable messages for Putin, who launched the invasion after giving a speech insisting that Ukraine was not a real country but “entirely created by Russia” and “never had its own authentic statehood”.

Among those who couldn’t resist visiting the phantom parade was Radchenko, a 68-year-old musician who said he had not missed an Independence Day celebration in the capital since the first one after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Radchenko said he had shown up for commemorative events during previous attacks on Ukraine’s independence: when Russian-backed politicians threatened to take power in 2004, which set off the Orange Revolution, for example, and again in 2014, when Russian-backed separatists seized parts of eastern Ukraine, following the invasion and annexation of Crimea.

Six months into this latest and biggest Russian invasion, Radchenko is one of many Ukrainians who said the holiday felt less like a moment of festivity and more like the climax of a generations-long fight between freedom and domination. “We are not finished fighting for our independence,” said Radchenko, who spent months in his basement outside Kyiv with his children and grandchildren during the early stretch of the war and wrote a ballad about UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson in appreciation of Britain’s support of Ukraine. “But now, I think we have the confidence to keep it,” he said.

In a speech in Kyiv on Tuesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said he would mark Independence Day by bestowing awards on citizens who had contributed to the country’s survival in recent months, and he expressed confidence that Ukraine would persevere. “I am grateful to everyone who, since February 24, has chosen the path of struggle what makes life real – for freedom, for independence,” Zelensky said.

“No occupier feels safe on our land,” he added. “All collaborators know that they have no future. And we all do not just believe – we see – that our state has a perspective.”

The outpouring of Kyiv residents intent on celebrating their country’s independence has continued even as Ukrainian and American officials warned that Russia is poised to mark the holiday by launching missile attacks on Ukrainian cities and government facilities. “This day, unfortunately, is also important for our enemy,” Zelensky said. “Hideous Russian provocations and brutal strikes are possible.”

Washington declassified intelligence summaries that suggested Moscow was preparing to retaliate for recent Ukrainian attacks in Russian held territories in the Crimean Peninsula and the eastern Donbas region. The killing of Daria Dugina, a prominent ultra-nationalist supporter of Putin, in a car bombing in Moscow last weekend further heightened the risk of Russian strikes, officials said.

On Monday, the US Embassy in Kyiv issued a warning that Americans should leave the country, advising those who stay to seek cover if they hear large explosions. Air raid sirens sounded briefly on Tuesday, but there were no explosions. The embassy warning amplified fears among many Kyiv residents, who now place a premium on US assessments following Washington’s accurate prediction of Russia’s February 24 invasion.

“A lot of people didn’t believe warnings before the war. Now people take a US warning very seriously,” said Oleksandr Kurdynovych, who works for Ukraine’s state-run nuclear power company, Energoatom.

Some Kyiv residents have left town, spending the week at country homes in the Carpathian Mountains or in the western part of the country, where there have been far fewer Russian strikes. Many others said they would stick close to their homes during the holiday.

Yevheniia Pievnieva, 33, who was downtown handing out wristbands with the yellow and blue colours of Ukraine’s flag, said she planned to stay inside with her room-mates for Independence Day. Still, she didn’t see much logic to the precautions. “The Russians don’t need a holiday to attack us. They can do it any day, because they are crazy people,” she said.

Diana Sukyasova, a store manager at a luxury men’s clothing shop on Kyiv’s Sophia Square, said she was worried about missile strikes given her store’s proximity to prominent government buildings. “I don’t feel quite safe,” she said. “My son also lives in this government district, so I’m worried about him.” Before moving to Kyiv eight years ago, Sukyasova lived in Donetsk and then Georgia – both places have been invaded by Russian forces over the past 15 years. “Wherever I go, war starts,” she said with a grim laugh.

For many of those coming out Tuesday, which was Flag Day in the line-up of independence celebrations, the urge to mark Ukraine’s still uncertain freedom was stronger than their fear of Russian bombardment. Parents lifted their children to peer into the charred remains of personnel carriers and anti-aircraft units.

Three men opened the engine compartment of a tank and leaned in for a technical discussion of fuel efficiency. “It was all a waste of gas,” one said to laughter. The marks of Ukrainian pride were everywhere, from the ubiquitous blue-and-yellow flags to the popular T-shirts emblazoned simply “I am Ukrainian”. All are nationalist symbols that Ukrainians gleefully fly in the face of Putin’s denials of Ukrainian identity as culturally separate from Russia.

In just one example of how the war has backfired on Russia, that cultural identity has only grown stronger since the invasion, with some Ukrainians refusing to speak Russian, though, for many, it is their native language. One man in his twenties, who declined to give his name, said his Ukrainian trident shirt was a gift from his Russian-speaking grandfather. “Now, even he is learning to speak Ukrainian,” he said.

The human cost of the war is also evident. On a grassy slope of Independence Square, known popularly as Maidan, families have planted hundreds of flags to memorialise loved ones killed in the fighting. “Yana-Mother,” reads one. “Tana-Daughter, Age 5. Killed in Mariupol, March 3.”

But even as the killing continues and the war’s trajectory is uncertain, many Ukrainians see recent months as a turning point in solidifying their own nationhood. “Economically, this war is making us weaker. Russia is trying to destroy our economy and take our territory,” said Volodymyr Yermolenko, 42, editor in chief of Ukraine World, an Englishlanguage media site. “But psychologically, we are stronger. We had people who were not defining themselves as Ukrainian now turning more and more to the Ukrainian identity.”

That shift might finally change the cycle of Ukraine’s history, Yermolenko said. Since the August day 31 years ago, when a group of leaders in the nearby parliament shocked the nation by declaring independence from the collapsing Soviet Union, the country has periodically fought to keep itself apart from a revanchist Russia.

“Ukraine is like an aeroplane, gaining speed, gradually taking off,” Yermolenko said. “Russia keeps trying to bring it down.” Russia is obviously wreaking havoc, he said, and the war is a disaster: “Some lives will be ruined. But this is also consolidating the nation. If we can survive this, we can survive anything.”

This article was first published in The Washington Post