Ukrainians mark 31 years since they broke free from the Russia-dominated Soviet Union on Wednesday in what is certain to be a day of defiance against the Kremlin’s six-month-old war to subdue the country once again.
Ukraine’s Independence Day falls six months after Russia’s February 24 invasion and will be observed with subdued celebrations under the threat of attack from land, air and sea.
Public gatherings are banned in the capital Kyiv and a curfew is in force in the front-line eastern city of Kharkiv, which has weathered months of shelling.
The government laid out the hulks of burnt-out Russian tanks and armoured vehicles like war trophies in central Kyiv in a show of defiance.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy warned of the possibility of “repugnant Russian provocations”.
“We are fighting against the most terrible threat to our statehood and also at a time when we have achieved the greatest level of national unity,” Zelenskiy said in a Tuesday evening address.
Ukraine’s military urged people to take air raid warnings seriously.
“Russian occupiers continue to carry out air and missile attacks on civilian objects on the territory of Ukraine. Do not ignore air raid signals,” the general staff said in a statement on Wednesday.
Zelenskiy told representatives of about 60 countries and international organisations attending a virtual summit on Crimea on Tuesday that Ukraine would drive Russian forces out of the peninsular by any means necessary, without consulting other countries beforehand.
The war has killed thousands of civilians, forced over a third of Ukraine’s 41 million people from their homes, left cities in ruins and shaken global markets. It is largely at a standstill with no immediate prospect of peace talks.
In addition to Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, Russian forces have expanded control to areas of the south including the Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts, and chunks of the eastern Donbas region comprising the provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
Ukraine’s armed forces have said almost 9,000 military personnel have been killed in the war.
Russia has not publicised its losses but US intelligence estimates 15,000 killed in what Moscow calls a “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine. Kyiv says the invasion is an unprovoked act of imperial aggression.
Ukraine broke free of the Soviet Union in August 1991 after a failed putsch in Moscow and an overwhelming majority of Ukrainians voted in a referendum to declare independence.
‘Intensive’ talks on plant
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said the United Nations (UN) nuclear watchdog hoped to gain access to the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in southern Ukraine within days.
Both sides have accused the other of firing missiles and artillery dangerously close to the plant, Europe’s biggest, raising fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
“I’m continuing to consult very actively and intensively with all parties,” Grossi said in a statement on Tuesday. “The mission is expected to take place within the next few days if ongoing negotiations succeed.”
Pro-Moscow forces took over the plant soon after the invasion began but Ukrainian technicians are still operating it. The UN has called for the area to be demilitarised.
Russia on Tuesday accused Ukraine of attacking the plant with artillery, guided munitions and a drone, drawing a denial from Ukraine’s UN ambassador, Sergiy Kyslytsya.
“Nobody who is at least conscious can imagine that Ukraine would target a nuclear power plant at tremendous risk of nuclear catastrophe and on its own territory,” Kyslytsya said at an emergency UN Security Council meeting in New York called by Russia.
Ukraine’s allies offered more military support on Wednesday.
Norway and Britain will jointly supply micro drones worth up to 90m Norwegian crowns to help with reconnaissance and target identification, the Norwegian defence ministry said.
The US, which has sent $10.6 billion in security assistance to Ukraine, will announce a new package of about $3bn as early as Wednesday, a US official said.
Advanced US missile systems appear to have helped Ukraine strike deep behind the front lines in recent months, taking out ammunition dumps and command posts.
In the latest mysterious fire at a Russian military facility, Russian officials said ammunition stored in southern Russia near the border with Ukraine spontaneously combusted on Tuesday.
Vyacheslav Gladkov, the governor of Belgorod region, blamed hot weather for the fire, drawing ridicule from Ukraine.
“In a few months we will find out whether Russian ammunition can explode because of the cold,” Ukraine’s defence ministry said on Twitter.
“The five main causes of sudden explosions in Russia are: winter, spring, summer, autumn and smoking.”