Russian missile hits passenger train as Ukraine marks Independence Day

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
The Motherland statue in Kyiv is lit up in the national colors as part of Independence Day celebrations.

KYIV – With a mix of prudence, exuberance and, mostly, defiance, Ukrainians on Wednesday took time out from their existential battle with invading Russian forces to celebrate their 31st year as a free nation, marking their first Independence Day since the Kremlin launched a full-scale war here six months ago.

Photo for The Washington Post by Heidi Levine
At a Dnipro cemetery on Ukrainian Independence Day, Alina Karnauhova, 35, places white roses on the grave of her husband, Serhii Karnauhov, 43, a Ukrainian soldier killed in action.

Warnings from Ukrainian officials and American intelligence agencies that Russia was poised to mar the holiday by launching missile strikes went largely unrealized, although the war’s violence continued in some parts of the country.

Along the shifting front lines to the east and south, Ukrainians contended with missile and artillery attacks near Dnipro and in the Eastern Donbas region.

Russian rocket strikes on a passenger train in the town of Chaplyne, about 60 miles east of the Dnieper River killed at least 22 people and wounded at least 50, officials said. Communities in the Eastern Donbas region contended with strikes throughout the day.

In Kyiv, the capital, residents largely heeded President Volodymyr Zelensky’s warnings of a potentially “hideous” attack on the city and spent much of the day at home. Many shops were closed, and traffic was light. Peeling church bells greeted the day in many neighborhoods – a symbol of freedom and, for many, of resistance and survival.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
KA man lights a candle in S. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv on Wednesday.

“Morally, the Ukrainian people have already won,” said Metropolitan Epiphanius I, the head of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, in a sermon at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral. “But we still have to [achieve] victory over the aggressor, expel the invaders.”

By evening, following an uneventful afternoon and a surprise visit by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is beloved in Ukraine, Kyiv residents poured into the streets in greater numbers, a show of defiance against Russia simply by venturing outdoors.

“Glory to Ukraine, glory to the heroes,” said a group of young Ukrainians, two of the women quite literally wrapped in their country’s blue and yellow flag as they tossed back celebratory shots of a clear liquid just off Khreschatyk Street, Kyiv’s main boulevard where dozens of destroyed Russian tanks were lined up as a macabre holiday parade.

The crowd milling around the shattered war machines had swelled from hundreds in the morning to more than a thousand by sunset. They carried Ukrainian flags, ice cream cones and selfie sticks, and they largely ignored the air-raid sirens that have become commonplace, as Kyiv itself has not been struck by a missile since June 26.

One crowded pizza joint in the city center nominally nodded to the red-alert by serving every pie in a to-go box, but most customers grabbed a table and broke the containers open.

“There have been too many sirens; people have to work and to eat,” said Igor Vodianu, a waiter at the Very Well cafe a few blocks from Kyiv’s Independence Square, known popularly as Maidan, where most patrons didn’t look up from their cold chicken soup when a siren blared.

The Ukrainian national anthem sounded on many corners as the day grew more festive, often wafting out from open shop doors, sometimes from car windows and once from a speaker mounted on a horse-drawn wagon.

World leaders paid homage to Ukraine’s struggle against its invading neighbor throughout the day. In Brussels, the European Commission lit its headquarters in blue and yellow. French President Emmanuel Macron called in a video message for Aug. 24 to be “a day of hope.”

Alexander Lukashenko, the dictator of Belarus, however, failed to charm Ukrainians with his official congratulations, in which he conveyed hopes that current circumstances would not spoil the two countries’ “good-neighborly relations.” Noting that Lukashenko, considered a Putin puppet here, allowed Russia to use his country as a staging ground for its invasion, one Ukrainian official sharply dismissed Lukashenko’s good wishes as “blood-soaked clowning.”

In Washington, President Joe Biden announced additional military aid of nearly $3 billion, including air defense systems, artillery systems and munitions.

He called the holiday, which marks Ukraine’s liberation from the Soviet Union in 1991, “bittersweet,” noting massive numbers killed, wounded and displaced. “But six months of relentless attacks have only strengthened Ukrainians’ pride in themselves,” Biden said.

Johnson, whose efforts to finance Ukraine’s military and buck up its people have made him a local hero to many – you can find Johnson’s blond moptop Photoshopped on the logo of Ukraine’s national railroad – made a surprise personal appearance in the capital.

Johnson, in his last weeks in office after resigning amid pressure from his fellow Conservative Party members following a string of scandals, was making a valedictory visit in Kyiv after being among the first world leaders to come forward with economic and military assistance to Ukraine.

Britain has given more defensive weapons to Ukraine, including nearly 7,000 antitank missiles, than any other European country. Johnson and Zelensky speak frequently and are genuinely close, according to officials in each country.

Zelensky, who awarded Johnson Ukraine’s Order of Freedom, heaped praise on his counterpart at a joint appearance before the two walked together through Maidan as an air-raid siren sounded. “We are lucky to have this friend,” the president said.

Elsewhere in the city, protesters lined the fence in front of the shuttered Russian Embassy with graphic posters of destruction wrought by Russian bombing around Ukraine. “Feeling guilty is not enough,” read a sign in Russian hung on the front gate.

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech
Activists hung pictures of destroyed Ukrainian homes on the fence surrounding the closed Russian Embassy in Kyiv.

Yuri Fedorenko, a Ukrainian soldier who organized the protest, said the group he works with has been staging such events for six years, after the Russian invasion of Crimea.

They have put together back-channel online sources for readers in Russian that attract more than 1 million visitors a month, Fedorenko said. “We know there are a lot of people who do not support Putin,” he said. “They have to do more than just feel bad for us.”

Just behind the gate, in what according to diplomatic protocol remains a patch of Russian territory, was another sign of Ukrainian national sentiment: Dozens of poop bags lining the path to the embassy entrance, tossed there by Kyiv dog owners.