KYIV—Ukraine was “reborn” when Russia invaded six months ago, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Wednesday, marking 31 years of his country’s independence from the former Soviet Union with a vow to drive Russian forces out completely.
After days of warnings that Moscow could use the anniversary of Ukraine’s Independence Day to launch more missile attacks on major urban centres, the second biggest city Kharkiv was under curfew after months of frequent bombardment.
The anniversary fell exactly six months after Russia sent tens of thousands of troops into Ukraine. Wednesday’s celebrations were cancelled but many people marked the day by wearing embroidered shirts that are part of the national dress.
In an emotional speech to his compatriots, Zelenskyy said Russia’s attack had revived the nation’s spirit.
“A new nation appeared in the world on Feb. 24 at 4 in the morning. It was not born, but reborn. A nation that did not cry, scream or take fright. One that did not flee. Did not give up. And did not forget,” he said.
The 44-year-old leader, speaking in front of Kyiv’s central monument to independence in his trademark combat fatigues, vowed to recapture Russian-occupied areas of eastern Ukraine as well as the Crimean peninsula, which Russia annexed in 2014.
“We will not sit down at the negotiating table out of fear, with a gun pointed at our heads. For us, the most terrible iron is not missiles, aircraft and tanks, but shackles. Not trenches, but fetters,” he said.
He and his wife later joined religious leaders for a service in Kyiv’s St. Sophia cathedral and laid flowers at a memorial to fallen soldiers.
U.S. President Joe Biden announced nearly $3 billion for weapons and equipment for Ukraine in Washington’s “biggest tranche of security assistance to date.”
On a surprise visit to Kyiv on Wednesday for talks with Zelenskyy, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson also promised a further $63.5 million worth of military support, including 2,000 drones and loitering munitions to enable the Ukrainian military to better track and target Russian forces.
“You can count on NATO’s support. For as long as it takes,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told Ukrainians in a video message.
Russia has made few advances in Ukraine in recent months.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu told a meeting of defence ministers in Uzbekistan that Moscow had deliberately slowed down what it refers to as its “special military operation” in Ukraine to avoid civilian casualties.
Speaking at a meeting of defence ministers of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation in Uzbekistan, Shoigu said: “Everything is being done to avoid casualties among civilians. Of course, this slows down the pace of the offensive, but we are doing this deliberately.”
Russian forces have seized areas of the south including Black Sea and Sea of Azov coasts and large tracts of the eastern Donbsas region comprising the Provinces of Luhansk and Donetsk.
In southern Ukraine, both sides have accused the other of firing missiles and artillery at the Russian-occupied Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, raising fears of a nuclear catastrophe.
International Atomic Energy Agency chief Rafael Grossi said the U.N. nuclear watchdog hoped to gain access soon, while Russia said it had arrested two Ukrainian employees of the plant for passing information to Ukrainian authorities.
The head of the town of Mykhailivka in the Russian-controlled part of the Zaporizhzhia region was killed by a car bomb.
In the latest mysterious fire at a Russian military facility, Russian officials said ammunition stored in the south near the border with Ukraine spontaneously combusted on Tuesday.
By Tom Balmforth