Ukraine’s Independence Day, which Wednesday marks 31 years since the country voted to break with the Soviet Union, will turn out to be a bleak affair as officials warn that Russia could launch missile strikes on Ukrainian cities.
While previous years have been marked by celebrations and parades, Wednesday’s commemoration comes exactly six months after the Russian invasion of the country began.
President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the day with an emotional speech in which he spoke of the Russian invasion as another day of independence – the day Ukraine had to fight for its freedom, instead of simply voting for it at the ballot box.
“A new nation emerged on February 24 at 4 a.m. Not born, but reborn. A nation that didn’t cry, didn’t scream, didn’t get scared. Not run away. I didn’t give up. Don’t forget,” Zelensky said on Wednesday.
He added: “Every new day is a new reason not to give up. Because, after going through so much, we have no right not to reach the end. What is the end of the war for us? We used to say: peace. Now we say: Victory.”
The head of Kiev’s military administration, Major General Mykola Zhyrnov, said events in the capital and other cities have been banned so that security forces can respond more efficiently to possible Russian attacks.
Instead of a parade, destroyed and captured Russian military vehicles, including tanks, were placed on Kiev’s main street Khreshchatyk, as a testament to Moscow’s failed attempt to take the capital in the early weeks of the war.
“The enemy planned to hold a ‘parade’ on Khreshchatyk in three days, but it didn’t work out. Our armed forces responded back,” Kyrylo Tymoshenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian president’s office, wrote on Telegram on Saturday as the vehicles were put on the road by crane.
On the eve of Independence Day, crowds of people were seen in Khreshchatyk inspecting the display. Some children crawled on the rusty metal carcass of a tank, while others posed for photos by the mangled vehicles.
Liubov, who asked not to publish her last name, said she showed up to show the “scrap parade” to her 8-year-old son, Illia.
As Illia climbed on a Russian combat vehicle, Liubov described the parade as “symbolic” and said “a lot of people in Kiev (have forgotten) about war, so I think this is a good memory.”
Her husband, who fights at the front, begged her to leave the capital and go to their summer home 50 kilometers away, she said. But she has refused to go.
Even if “there are massive rocket attacks on Kiev (on Wednesday), we will not leave,” she said, explaining that she has an emergency bag at home, with enough clothes and overalls “in case of radiation pollution … in case of missiles. We are no longer so easily startled by them.”
“I don’t feel celebratory about (Independence Day), rather, I feel sad,” she added. “Because I understand what’s going on and my husband and brother are on the front lines.”
Another onlooker was holding a Ukrainian flag and told CNN she also has relatives fighting against Russia.
“My father is on the front lines, many of my relatives are on the front lines … so tomorrow is not necessarily a celebration, but I honor and feel the independence because this time it will feel different from the last 30 years,” said Daria, 35, who declined to give her last name.
Zelensky warned on Tuesday that Russia could step up its efforts to launch attacks, including missile strikes, on “infrastructure facilities or state institutions” around the holiday. Joining the chorus of concerns, the US government told Americans on Tuesday to leave the country immediately.
On Khreshchatyk, due to Ukrainian spoils of war, many who spoke to CNN shared their concerns about a possible Russian attack on Wednesday.
“We planned to come here tomorrow, but because there were many warnings for tomorrow, we will stay at home,” said Oleh Fetir, 51, as he attended the parade with his wife.
“We came here to see the scrap metal parade because the (Russians) ruined the celebration for us. Last year on Independence Day we were here and watched the parade (of Ukrainian) military equipment, with the planes, it was majestic and fascinating. This current parade is quite impressive. It lacks the photos of those who were inside,” he said, referring to Russian soldiers.
After six months of conflict that sent Ukraine’s economy into a tailspin and disrupted almost every part of everyday life, the fatigue was palpable.
“I don’t feel festive for tomorrow, not in a festive mood,” said 29-year-old Oleksii, explaining that he is concerned about missiles being fired at the capital.
“My hatred of Russians has grown to such an extent that I am devastated,” said Anna, 68, who declined to give her last name for security reasons.
The clinic where she works has told her to work remotely for the next few days. “I worked (during) the war … sometimes I came home under shelling,” she said.
She described Russian President Vladimir Putin as unpredictable, like “a monkey holding a grenade”.
“He says one thing, does another, and no one can guess what’s going on in his head,” she said.