Defiant Under Russian Strikes, Ukrainians Celebrate a Nation ‘Reborn’

KYIV, Ukraine — Under the blare of air raid sirens, Ukrainians celebrated their Independence Day with a show of defiance against Russia’s invasion on Wednesday, despite the uncertain course of a war that has lasted half a year and brought horror to nearly every part of the country.

In Kyiv, mass gatherings were banned, drones flew a Ukrainian flag above the city and a concert was recorded for the holiday in a bomb shelter, reflecting fears that Russia would launch dramatic strikes on civilian centers to spoil the occasion, which commemorates Ukraine’s 1991 separation from the Soviet Union.

The biggest strike came not in Kyiv but in a small town in eastern Ukraine, where a rail station was hit with a missile strike that crushed passenger cars and set them afire. A least 22 civilians were killed, and 50 were wounded, with the toll expected to rise.

“This is how we live every day,” President Volodymyr Zelensky said after the attack.

But in Kyiv, Ukrainian leaders delivered speeches aimed at rallying foreign backers as much as their citizens at home and the tens of thousands of soldiers huddled in trenches and towns at the front.

In a slickly produced address, prerecorded for security reasons, Mr. Zelensky stood before a column of burned and wrecked Russian tanks on a central avenue in the capital and declared Ukraine a nation “reborn” in conflict. Ukraine, he said, has a renewed sense of cultural and political identity that is now wholly separate from Russia.

Ukrainians soldiers with the National Guard visiting St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, the center of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, on Wednesday in Kyiv.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“Every new day is a new reason not to give up,” Mr. Zelensky said. “Because, having gone 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.’”

But victory — or even a pause to the fighting — appears to be a distant prospect for either Ukraine or Russia. As Europe prepares for a hard winter of high energy prices, driven in part by E.U. sanctions and Russian cuts to the gas supply, Ukrainian officials are under growing pressure to show their European supporters that they can retake territory and turn the war in their favor.

European nations that promised weapons, equipment and ammunition have mostly delivered those supplies to Ukraine. But new aid commitments, of gear or cash, dramatically slowed over the summer as countries tallied their stores and tried to deal with problems like inflation.

The Biden administration announced on Wednesday that it was sending nearly $3 billion in weapons and equipment previously approved by Congress, the United States’ single largest package of military aid to Ukraine’s forces. The outgoing prime minister of Britain, Boris Johnson, met with Mr. Zelensky in Kyiv on Wednesday, saying his country would “continue to stand with our Ukrainian friends.”

But although Ukraine’s Western backers have committed billions in aid to the country, Mr. Zelensky on Wednesday chastised them, as he has periodically, for wavering over new deliveries. “Being indifferent, inactive and slow is a shame,” he said. Speaking by video to the United Nations Security Council, he urged its members to hold Russia accountable for its invasion.

Ukrainian soldiers using drones to raise a giant Ukrainian flag in front of the Motherland Statue in central Kyiv.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

“In order to build the future, it is necessary to leave in the dustbin of history what has always prevented humanity from living in peace,” he said. “Namely, the aggression and colonial ambitions that Russia came with to Ukraine.”

Ukraine has used Western-supplied weapons to disrupt Russian supply lines, U.S. officials said, describing a slowdown in Russian shelling. But the front lines have shifted only in tiny increments over the past several weeks, and Russia has reinforced its positions in the south to defend against Ukrainian attacks.

Ukrainian officials have said their strategy involves both overt military strikes and covert activities designed to sow chaos. In Crimea, the peninsula seized by Russia in 2014, Ukrainian forces and partisan fighters have been responsible for explosions at ammunition depots and airfields, according to a senior Ukrainian official.

Russia, although it retains an advantage in weapons and controls about 20 percent of Ukrainian territory, has struggled to make more advances.

Both countries face serious manpower problems.

The commander of the Ukrainian Army, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, acknowledged earlier this week that about 9,000 soldiers had died so far in the war, but on Wednesday he struck a defiant tone.

“What does independence feel like?” General Zaluzhnyi said on Facebook. “Those who are fighting for it know its taste. It’s the taste of earth eating into your skin. The taste of blood and death that saturates the air. The salty taste of tears.”

At St Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Western analysts believe Russia may have lost about 20,000 soldiers, but the Kremlin has kept its casualty figures a tightly guarded secret. It has also stifled criticism inside Russia about the war.

On Wednesday, police officers in masks and camouflage stormed the home of Yevgeny Roizman, a popular former mayor of Yekaterinburg and perhaps the most vocal antiwar critic still in Russia. He was detained for “discrediting” the Russian Army, the authorities said, and faces three years in prison under a censorship law signed by President Vladimir V. Putin in March.

“I say this everywhere and will say it now,” Mr. Roizman told reporters outside his apartment. Referring to his own arrest, he said: “We know all there is to know about our country. This is nothing new.”

Russian state news media did not carry any prominent mention that the “special military operation,” as it calls the war, has now gone on for six months. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei K. Shoigu, said that Moscow intended to slow its military campaign in Ukraine to reduce civilian casualties.

“We are doing this deliberately,” he said, although Moscow has failed to honor previous pledges to protect civilians or ease its assault.

And by evening, two missiles had struck the rail station in Chaplyne in eastern Ukraine; cluster munitions were used in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine, wounding two civilians; and missiles hit near the central Ukrainian town of Poltava, officials said.

But the strikes were in keeping with Russian long-range fire into Ukraine in recent weeks and not the intensification that the country had braced for. Curfews were in effect in many cities and towns, including some in the eastern Donbas region, where wilted sunflower fields, debris-covered highways and the distant thud of artillery serve as the gates to the war’s front line.

Ukrainian soldiers taking photos in front of their national flag on Wednesday in Bakhmut, Ukraine.Credit…Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

For some residents of the region, where Russian troops have made slow, small gains in recent weeks, Wednesday was just another day on the calendar.

“It’s been the same continuous shelling for weeks here, especially at nights,” said a man named Antolii, who declined to give his last name. His town, Paraskoviivka, has been without water for a month and without electricity for two weeks. It is roughly five miles away from Russian positions.

Nina Fedorivna, a woman in a nearby town, said plainly: “We have constant shelling going on here, round-the-clock, so it won’t be anything new if we’re shelled on Independence Day.”

Anton Troianovski contributed reporting from Berlin, Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Paraskoviivka, Ukraine, and Alan Yuhas from New York.

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