Yesterday’s rival demonstrations on Ukraine’s 23rd anniversary of independence from the Soviet Union underscored the bitter divide in a country already five months into warfare and making plans for potentially years more of tensions.
President Petro Poroshenko, addressing a highly militarized independence rally in Kiev, vowed to defeat the rebels and safeguard Ukraine’s border with Russia by sharply raising defence spending for the coming three years. He warned that Ukraine too often in history had been caught by surprise from eastern invasions.
“It is clear that in the foreseeable future there will always, unfortunately, be the threat of war,” Mr Poroshenko said. “And we not only have to learn to live with that. We must always be prepared to defend our independence.”
The rebels responded with their own show of strength in their stronghold of Donetsk, parading dozens of captured soldiers through the streets as bystanders tossed eggs and bottles at them. The insurgents also dumped battle-scarred Ukrainian military equipment on a central square, a bold rebuke to Kiev’s announcement that it plans to strengthen its military.
While public support and mobilisation for Kiev’s campaign against the separatists is growing in much of the country, resentments fester in much of the east, where civilian casualties and shelling, often from Ukrainian military positions, have become a part of daily life.
In Kiev more than 20,000 people, many waving the country’s blue-and-yellow flags or donning traditional embroidered shirts, watched the parade on Kiev’s Independence Square. Mr Poroshenko announced he would raise military spending by 40 billion hryvnia (£1.8bn) through 2017, an effective 50 per cent increase from current budget targets.
Ukrainian military leaders have pleaded for extra resources as they face a potentially protracted fight against separatists. In recent weeks, Kiev’s troops have scored heavy gains in territory and encircled the east’s regional capitals of Luhansk and Donetsk. The United Nations estimates that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting since April, a toll that rises almost daily.
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council, said yesterday that 722 members of Ukraine’s armed forces have died in the fighting, with five killed and eight wounded in the past day alone.
Meanwhile, in Donetsk, Russian nationalist songs blasted from speakers as supporters posed for photos in front of a destroyed tank.
“Today is the so-called independence day of what was Ukraine,” said one rebel. “And look what has happened to their equipment. This is what has become of Ukraine!”
One onlooker grabbed a Ukrainian flag from the wreckage of one tank and threw it to the ground. Several others trampled on it, wiping their feet and spitting.
In another symbolic move, Mr Poroshenko travelled south to the predominantly Russian-speaking port city of Odessa to give a second speech yesterday.
He and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are set to meet tomorrow in Minsk, Belarus, alongside other European Union leaders. The two leaders have not met since early June, and many hope that the talks could help defuse the conflict in east Ukraine.