Ukraine marks 25th independence day with show of anti-Russian force
Tanks rumbled across Kiev on Tuesday as Ukraine marked 25 years of independence with a show of force against an increasingly assertive Russia and a war simmering in the pro-Kremlin separatist east.
Thousands of soldiers saluted Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on the same square where a pro-EU revolution in 2014 ousted a Moscow-backed leader and left former master Russia fuming.
Poroshenko used Wednesday’s event to take a dig at Russian President Vladimir Putin for famous calling the Soviet Union’s 1991 collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century”.
“We were the ones who created what Putin later called the ‘greatest geopolitical catastrophe’,” Poroshenko declared in a speech to the nation as hundreds of Ukrainian blue and yellow flags fluttered in the damp wind.
“Looking back at more than two years of war, we can confidently say that our enemy failed to achieve a single goal — it was not able to bring Ukraine to its knees.”
More than 9,500 people have died and two million forced from their homes in fighting between government forces and pro-Russian militias in two major industrial regions in the east that rebels now partially control.
Ukraine also lost its strategic Black Sea peninsula of Crimea when it was annexed by Russia on Putin’s orders in March 2014, shortly before the uprising in the east began.
Putin’s actions plunged the Kremlin’s relations with the West to a post-Cold War low that has complicated global attempts to find solutions to raging crises like the Syrian war.
But Russia has only ramped up its campaign to prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and this month escalated tensions with Ukraine by accusing it of plotting an incursion into Crimea.
Putin has repeatedly denied involvement in the separatist conflict and described Russians captured or spotted in the war zone as off duty soldiers and volunteers who were “following the call of their heart”.
– ‘Perseverance and sacrifice’ –
But Kiev and the West accuse Russia of backing the insurgency in order to keep the Ukrainian leaders off balance and constantly dependent on the Kremlin’s whims.
Both the United States and the European Union have imposed stiff economic sanctions on Kremlin-linked companies and members of Putin’s inner circle that helped push Russia into an 18-month recession.
Moscow has responded by banning the import of most Western food products and accusing Washington of sponsoring a “coup” in Ukraine that forced Putin-backed president Viktor Yanukovych to flee to Russia in 2014.
US Secretary of State John Kerry said in a message that “despite Russia’s aggression in eastern Ukraine and its illegal occupation of Crimea, you have worked steadily to build stronger and more effective political, economic, and cultural institutions.
“These efforts have required perseverance and sacrifice, for which I applaud you,” he said.
Yet Ukraine remains mired in corruption that has delayed the release of IMF funding and still suffers from political infighting that brought down a pro-Western government that came to power after the 2004-2005 Orange Revolution.
The Soviet Union crumbled in the wake of a failed August 1991 putsch by Communist hardliners who were trying to suppress the independence movements launched in the three Baltic states in 1990.
A domino effect followed that saw Ukraine break from Russia on August 24, followed by Belarus and Moldova on August 27.
Independence from the Soviet Union is being celebrated this year in 14 of the former socialist republics that Russia once ruled.
Moscow has its own “Russia Day” holiday marking its 1990 declaration of sovereignty that was spearheaded by the late Boris Yeltsin.