KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukraine braced for what President Volodymr Zelenskyy warned Wednesday could be particularly brutal Russian attacks as the country celebrated its Independence Day — marking the six-month mark of the war — under conditions considered too dangerous to allow large public celebrations in the capital.
Kiev residents woke up to air raid sirens, but there were no immediate strikes. The capital has been largely spared attack in recent months, when a war widely expected to be a lightning-fast conquest by Moscow turned into a protracted conflict fought mainly in the east and south..
Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson marked the holiday with a visit to Kiev – his third since the start of the war – and other European leaders took the opportunity to show unwavering support for the land and pay tribute to the sacrifices of its people. US announced major new military aid package totaling nearly $3 billion to help Ukrainian troops fight in the coming years.
Independence Day commemorates Ukraine’s 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
Kiev authorities have banned large gatherings in the capital through Thursday, fearing the national holiday could trigger particularly heavy Russian rocket attacks.
“Russian provocations and brutal strikes are a possibility,” Zelenskyy said in a statement. “Please strictly follow the safety rules. Please observe the curfew. Note the air sirens. Watch for official announcements. And remember, we must all win together.”
Nevertheless, there was a festive atmosphere in Kiev’s Maidan Square as thousands of Kiev residents posed for photos next to burnt-out Russian tanks on display. Folk singers mounted, and many revelers – ignoring the sirens – were out in traditionally embroidered dresses and shirts.
Others were afraid.
“I can’t sleep at night because of what I see and hear about what is being done in Ukraine,” said a pensioner who mentioned only her first name, Tetyana, her voice quivering with emotion. “This is not a war. It is the destruction of the Ukrainian people.”
In a holiday message to the country, Zelenskyy said: “Six months ago Russia declared war on us. On February 24, all of Ukraine heard explosions and gunfire. … On February 24, we were told: you have no chance. On August 24, we say: Happy Independence Day, Ukraine!”
Zelenskyy also addressed the UN Security Council via video about Russia’s objections, saying the “security of the entire world” is at stake in Ukraine’s fight against Moscow’s “insane aggression”.
US President Joe Biden said the latest US aid package will allow Ukraine to acquire air defense and artillery systems and other weapons.
“I know this Independence Day is bittersweet for many Ukrainians as thousands have been killed or injured, millions have been displaced from their homes and so many others have been victims of Russian atrocities and attacks,” Biden said. “But six months of relentless attacks have only heightened Ukrainians’ pride in themselves, in their country and in their 31 years of independence.”
Britain’s Johnson urged Western allies to continue to support Ukraine throughout the winter.
“This is not the time to make meager negotiating proposals,” he said. “You can’t negotiate with a bear if he’s eating your leg or with a robber if he’s pinned you to the floor.”
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz chided the Kremlin for its “backward imperialism” and declared that Ukraine “will dispel the dark shadow of war because it is strong and brave, because it has friends in Europe and around the world.”
A car bomb outside Moscow that killed the 29-year-old daughter of right-wing Russian political theorist Alexander Dugin on Saturday also heightened fears that Russia would intensify its attacks on Ukraine this week. Russian officials have blamed Ukraine for the death of Darya Dugina, a pro-Kremlin TV commentator. Ukraine has denied any involvement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops have met unexpectedly fierce Ukrainian resistance during their invasion and abandoned their attempt to storm the capital in the spring. The fighting has turned into a war of attrition that has reduced neighborhoods to rubble and sent shockwaves through the global economy.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, speaking at a meeting of his colleagues from a Russian-China-dominated security organization on Wednesday, claimed the slow pace of Moscow’s military action was due to what he said was an attempt to to save citizens.
Russian forces have repeatedly attacked civilian areas in cities, including hospitals and a Mariupol theater where hundreds of people sought shelter.
But Shoigu said Russia is carrying out attacks with precision weapons against Ukrainian military targets, and “everything is being done to avoid civilian casualties”.
“No doubt it slows down the pace of the offensive, but we are doing it intentionally,” he said.
He also criticized the US and its allies for “continuing to pump weapons into Ukraine”, saying the aid is challenging the conflict and increasing casualties.
On the battlefield, Russian forces attacked several towns and villages in eastern Donetsk province for 24 hours, killing one person, authorities said. A building materials superstore in the city of Donetsk was hit by a grenade and burst into flames, the mayor said. There were no immediate reports of injuries.
In the Dnipropetrovsk region on the southern front, Russians again shelled the towns of Nikopol and Marhanets, damaging several buildings and injuring two people, authorities said. Russian troops also shelled the city of Zaporizhzhya, but there were no casualties.
Russian missiles also hit unspecified targets in the Khmelnytskyi region, about 300 kilometers (180 miles) west of Kiev, the regional governor said. Attacks have been rare.
Varenytsia reported from Pokrovsk, Ukraine. Associated Press writers Hanna Arhirova in Kiev and Lolita C. Baldor and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.
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