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Ukraine marks independence from Moscow with defiant military parade

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By JACK LOSH | Special to The Washington Post | Published: August 24, 2016

KIEV, Ukraine — For a spectacle designed to celebrate a country's break from its Soviet past, the military parade here Wednesday felt peculiarly, impeccably, Soviet.

Huge columns of army, air force and navy units marched through central Kiev, followed by scores of military vehicles and rocket-launch systems, as Ukraine marked a quarter of a century of independence from Moscow and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The brash display of military might was intended to boost morale and highlight the renewed potency of Ukraine's once-beleaguered armed forces in the face of tensions over Russia's annexation of Crimea and escalating violence in Ukraine's war-torn east.

Ahead of Ukraine's largest military procession since the collapse of communism, President Petro Poroshenko told a crowd of thousands that the country must rely on its own strength rather than external help - a swipe at the West for not doing more to protect Ukraine from a separatist insurgency and a perceived covert Russian invasion.

"Independence has given us democracy and freedom, the feeling of civic dignity and national unity," Poroshenko said in the Maidan, or Independence Square, the hub of the protests that ousted then-President Viktor Yanukovych in 2014. "Our main guarantor is the Ukrainian armed forces. . . . This parade will signal to our international partners that Ukraine is capable of defending itself but requires further support."

He spoke scornfully of Russian President Vladimir Putin's "imperial appetite" and warned that Ukraine would need "years and tens of billions of hryvnias" until it can "sleep soundly." The Ukrainian hryvnia is worth about four U.S. cents.

Among the crowd were men in traditional embroidered shirts, women adorned with flower garlands, children draped in Ukrainian flags and young couples taking selfies in front of the rolling mass of tanks, towed guns and missile batteries. Chants of "Glory to Ukraine!" and "Death to enemies" met generals saluting the president from armored vehicles while a commentator's voice boomed from loudspeakers, hailing the weapons' range and explosive capabilities.

Hundreds of servicemen and veterans turned out to witness the ostentatious parade. "This is the birthday of my nation. I want to see my colleagues taking part," said Yurii Kozlovskiy, 33, a former border guard who lost a leg in a grenade explosion during a training accident and now uses a wheelchair. "I'm proud of my people and my army. I'm proud of Ukraine."

Spyrydon Tseromonokh, 42, a former fighter with a volunteer battalion in Donbas, the eastern region riven by separatist conflict, said: "I'm here to honor the men who are fighting to defend our country." He was clad in military fatigues, with a large metal crucifix dangling beneath his bushy, salt-and-pepper beard. "But now I've left all that behind me to study astronomy."

Others were less reassured by the vast quantities of hardware that rumbled down Kiev's central boulevard, Khreshchatyk. Mary Gavuysevych, an 18-year-old student, said: "I can't understand why everyone is cheering. They are too proud of these weapons. I love my country, but this scene scares me."

President Barack Obama congratulated Ukrainians, saying: "This day is particularly important in light of the threats posed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity. . . . The United States remains resolute in our commitment to stand with Ukraine as you confront Russian aggression."

The Soviet Union crumbled in the wake of a failed August 1991 putsch by communist hard-liners. The Ukrainian republic's parliament voted to declare independence on Aug. 24, 1991, a move that was confirmed by referendum that December.

But many in Ukraine think the fight to defend their sovereignty is not yet over as Moscow wages a campaign of destabilization. The parade coincided with shelling hundreds of miles away in the troubled east, where violence between government forces and Kremlin-backed separatists has surged over the past week.

The deadliest month of fighting in a year has brought an increase in the use of destructive, notoriously inaccurate grad rockets and other heavy weapons banned under last year's Minsk cease-fire deal. Local reports this week showed rebel forces conducting marine landing drills near Mariupol, a key government-held industrial city on the Sea of Azov.

Russia this month claimed to have caught Ukrainian saboteurs in Crimea, sending tensions around the annexed peninsula soaring and prompting Poroshenko to put troops on full alert.

Despite the saber-rattling, analysts say a return to all-out warfare is unlikely. Moscow is thought to be using a "controlled escalation" to reformat upcoming peace negotiations, to pressure Ukraine and the West into accepting a peace settlement on Russia's terms, to bait Ukrainian forces into an offensive to further weaken Kiev's diplomatic position and to pave the way for the removal of sanctions, according to Alex Kokcharov, a Ukraine and Russia analyst at IHS Markit, a consulting firm.

The independence day celebrations come amid Ukraine's wider push to eliminate its communist past. Last month, a statue of Vladimir Lenin in Kiev was the latest to be pulled off its pedestal as part of a nationwide drive to remove all monuments and symbols linked to the Soviet era.

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