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Zelenskyy is defiant as Ukraine celebrates Independence Day


Celebrations of Ukraine’s Independence Day on Wednesday were mostly solemn affairs, punctuated by a passionate speech from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

By Andrew E. Kramer and Marc Santora


Air raid sirens blared in the capital, but strikes did not land. A recorded concert played in a bomb shelter. And at a golden-domed monastery, a solemn ceremony honored soldiers and prayed for their victory.


Ukrainians marked their Independence Day — and the six-month mark since the start of Russia’s invasion — with quiet resolve Wednesday, as a feared escalation of attacks by Moscow did not immediately materialize, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pledged to prevail in the war.


In a defiant, slickly produced speech standing before burned and destroyed Russian tanks on a central avenue of the capital — prerecorded for security reasons — Zelenskyy said Ukraine was a nation “reborn” in conflict with a renewed sense of cultural and political identity, now wholly separate from Russia, and one that has united democracies with a new sense of purpose.


Aiming his remarks as much at foreign donors as at his domestic audience, the address was Zelenskyy’s latest attempt to urge his nation to hold on, as tens of thousands of soldiers huddled in trenches across a 1,500-mile front line scarred by blasted-out towns and villages.


“Every new day is a new reason not to give up,” he 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.’”


Mass gatherings were prohibited in the capital, Kyiv, as the United States and others warned that Russia could intensify missile strikes to coincide with Independence Day, which commemorates Ukraine’s 1991 separation from the Soviet Union. By late afternoon, cluster munitions had struck in the Kharkiv region in northeastern Ukraine, wounding two civilians, and missiles hit near the central Ukrainian town of Poltava, officials said.


It was a baseline level of Russian long-range fire into Ukraine in recent weeks, not the intensification that the country had braced for.


Ukrainians appeared determined not to let Russia’s war spoil their holiday. Perhaps the most visible sign of Kyiv’s resolve was the backdrop Zelenskyy chose for his address: the column of wrecked Russian tanks and artillery on display along Kyiv’s central thoroughfare.


In Russia, state media did not carry prominent mentions of the six-month mark. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Moscow intended to slow its military campaign in Ukraine to reduce civilian casualties. “We are doing this deliberately,” he said. Moscow has failed to honor previous pledges to protect civilians or to ease its assault.


Russia has not seized significant new territory in Ukraine in weeks, as military analysts say that Western military and economic support has allowed Ukraine to regain its footing in the prolonged war. The Biden administration announced Wednesday that it was sending nearly $3 billion in weapons and equipment previously approved by Congress, the United States’ largest single package of military aid to Ukraine’s forces.


Although Russia maintains the advantage in weapons and manpower, and controls about 20% of Ukraine, military analysts say Western assistance is helping to reshape the war, at least for now. Russian forces are moving to a more defensive posture in occupied areas of the southeast, and Ukraine is using long-range missiles and other newly arrived weapons to try to degrade Moscow’s combat abilities.


It remains far from clear when — or if — the steady assault will result in Ukraine’s taking back significant amounts of territory. Ukrainian officials have said their strategy involves both overt military strikes and covert activities designed to sow chaos. In Crimea, the peninsula annexed 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.


In recent days, there have also been high-profile attempts to kill Russian proxy leaders in Mariupol, Melitopol and Kherson — three of the largest cities now under Russian occupation. Ukrainians on Tuesday also bombed the headquarters of the Russian occupation administration in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine.


“No occupier feels safe on our land,” Zelenskyy said on the eve of Independence Day. “All collaborators know that they have no future.”

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