Ukrainians revelled in a surreal display of burnt-out Russian tanks and armour laid out this week as war trophies in central Kyiv to mark the 31st anniversary of independence, but fears of fresh Russian attacks lurked behind their show of defiance.
An air raid siren perforated an eerie calm in Kyiv on the morning of Wednesday’s Independence Day following dire warnings that Russia could launch fresh attacks on major cities. Kyiv has warned Moscow of a powerful response if that happens.
The public holiday, which falls six months into Russia’s invasion, is usually marked with a military parade, but fearing attacks on mass rallies, Kyiv has banned public events in the city this year and the streets were much quieter than normal.
“I hope (the war) will end this year, so we can be joyful next spring… I’d like us to get more help, so it can end sooner and we can start living the happy life we had before the war,” said Anna Husieva, 27, a Kyiv resident.
In the run-up to the state holiday, citizens had thronged the central thoroughfare, posing for photos by the carcasses of Russian tanks and eating candy floss coloured in the yellow and blue of the national flag.
They mused at the irony of the armour display months after Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov, an ally of President Vladimir Putin, touted plans for a Russian military parade in Kyiv – until Moscow’s assault on the capital was abandoned in March.
“Putin dreamed of a parade on Khreshchatyk, well – here it is,” said Pavel Pidreza, 62, a retired Ukrainian soldier who was admiring the tanks on a stroll with his wife, Vira.
“We’re happy that our army is proving itself to be highly skilled, and is fighting like equals with an enemy that many countries feared, especially in Europe,” he added.
As they talked of national resilience, residents also spoke plainly of their grief at six months of war that has killed thousands, displaced millions and levelled whole cities.
Swathes of Ukraine are occupied and there is deep apprehension that the looming winter could be by far the worst since 1991 with natural gas and coal shortages threatening everything from electricity supplies to heating in homes.
Among the revellers in central Kyiv on Monday was a man named Oleksandr who became lost in tears reflecting on the six months of devastation and exclaimed in a trembling voice that he was unable to speak further.
“Probably no one has done as much to unite Ukraine as Putin,” said another resident, Yevhen Palamarchuk, 38. “We always had some internal tensions in the country but since 2014, and especially since February, we are united more than ever.”
He said that he, like his friends, were eagerly waiting to see Ukraine regain territory in the south in a much-vaunted counteroffensive after using sophisticated Western-supplied weapons to harry and hit Russian supply lines.
“People are weary with the war, but they are optimistic. It helps that we are getting weapons from the West … Everyone is waiting for the first major success of our military,” said Palamarchuk.
Independence Day is one of the most important public holidays in Ukraine and has taken on hallowed significance amid what Kyiv says is a Russian imperial-style war of aggression.
Moscow casts the invasion as a special operation to demilitarise a Westward-oriented Ukraine and rid it of people it describes as nationalists, a pretext the West and Kyiv have dismissed as false.
An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians voted in support of independence from the Russia-dominated Soviet Union in a referendum in August 1991.
Palamarchuk said he saw the threat from Russia this week as serious, but that Putin did not have many more options for escalating his attack on Ukraine except by resorting to a radical escalation with the use of nuclear weapons.
“At this point, living in Ukraine there’s always the danger of being hit by a rocket. I just don’t think statistically it’s very likely, that soothes me a little bit,” Palamarchuk said.