Warnings from Ukrainian officials and US intelligence that Russia was about to spoil the holiday by launching rocket attacks went largely unrealized, though the violence of war continued in some parts of the country.
Along the shifting front lines to the east and south, Ukrainians faced rocket and artillery attacks near Dnipro and in the eastern Donbas region.
At least 21 people have been killed and dozens injured in Russian rocket attacks on a passenger train in the town of Chaplyne, about 100 kilometers east of the Dnieper River, officials say. Communities in the East Donbas region faced strikes throughout the day.
In Kiev, the capital, residents largely heeded President Volodymyr Zelensky’s warnings of a potentially “horrific” attack on the city and spent much of the day at home. Many shops were closed and there was little traffic. Peeling church bells greeted the day in many neighborhoods — a symbol of freedom and, for many, of resistance and survival.
“Morally, the Ukrainian people have already won,” Metropolitan Epiphanius I, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, said in a sermon at St. Michael’s Cathedral. “But we still have to [achieve] victory over the aggressor, drive out the invaders.”
By evening, after a dull afternoon and a surprise visit from Ukraine’s beloved British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Kiev residents poured into the streets in greater numbers, demonstrating defiance against Russia by simply going outside.
“Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes,” said a group of young Ukrainians, two of the women literally clad in their country’s blue-and-yellow flag as they threw back festive photos of a clear liquid just off Khreschatyk Street, the main boulevard of Ukraine. Kiev where dozens of destroyed Russian tanks were lined up like a macabre holiday parade.
The crowd milling around the shattered war machines had grown from hundreds in the morning to over a thousand by sunset. They carried Ukrainian flags, ice cream cones and selfie sticks, largely ignoring the air raid sirens that have become commonplace, as Kiev itself has not been hit by a missile since June 26.
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A busy city center pizzeria nominally nodded the red alarm by serving every pie in a to-go box, but most customers grabbed a table and broke open the containers.
“There have been too many sirens; people have to work and eat,” said Igor Vodianu, a waiter at the Very Well cafe a few blocks from Kiev’s Independence Square, popularly known as Maidan, where most patrons didn’t look up from their cold chicken soup when a siren howled.
The Ukrainian national anthem sounded from many corners as the day grew more festive, often from open shop doors, sometimes from car windows, and once from a loudspeaker on a horse-drawn carriage.
World leaders all day paid tribute to Ukraine’s struggle against its invading neighbor. In Brussels, the European Commission has lit its headquarters in blue and yellow. French President Emmanuel Macron called a… video message for August 24 to be “a day of hope”.
However, Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, failed to charm Ukrainians with his official congratulations, expressing the hope that the current conditions would not spoil the “good neighborly relations” of the two countries. A Ukrainian official noted that Lukashenko, here considered a Putin puppet, allowed Russia to use his country as a staging area for his invasion, sharply dismissing Lukashenko’s good wishes as “blood-soaked clowning.”
In Washington, President Biden announced additional military aid of nearly $3 billion, including air defense systems, artillery systems and ammunition.
He called the holiday, which marks Ukraine’s liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991, “bittersweet,” noting that there were huge numbers of dead, injured and displaced people. “But six months of relentless attacks have only strengthened Ukrainians’ pride in themselves,” Biden said.
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Johnson, whose efforts to fund the Ukrainian military and protect its people have made him a local hero to many — you can find Johnson’s blond mop with Photoshop on the Ukrainian National Railway’s logo — made a surprising personal appearance in the capital city.
Johnson, in his final weeks in office after resigning under pressure from his fellow Conservative party members following a string of scandals, paid a farewell visit to Kiev after being one of the first world leaders to come forward with economic and military aid to Ukraine.
Britain has given Ukraine more defensive weapons, including nearly 7,000 anti-tank missiles, than any other European country. Johnson and Zelensky speak often and are really close, according to officials in each country.
Ukraine is a war zone. And a place where Boris Johnson can get away from it all.
Zelensky, who awarded Johnson Ukraine’s Order of Freedom, praised his counterpart during a joint performance before the two walked through Maidan together as an air raid siren went off. “We’re lucky to have this friend,” the president said.
Elsewhere in the city, protesters lined the fence in front of the shuttered Russian embassy, displaying graphic posters of devastation from Russian bombing around Ukraine. “Feeling guilty isn’t enough,” read a sign in Russian on the front door.
Yuri Fedorenko, a Ukrainian soldier who organized the protest, said the group he works with has been organizing such events for six years, following the Russian invasion of Crimea.
They have curated back-channel online resources for readers in Russian that attract more than 1 million visitors a month, Fedorenko said. “We know that there are many people who do not support Putin,” he said. “They need to do more than just feel sorry for us.”
Just beyond the gate, in what remains a patch of Russian territory according to diplomatic protocol, was another sign of Ukrainian national sentiment: dozens of poop bags lining the path to the embassy entrance, thrown there by dog owners from Kiev.
Serhiy Morgunov in Kiev contributed to this report.