It has been a year since Ukraine first parked a parade of destroyed Russian tanks, other armored vehicles and artillery pieces on Kyiv’s main thoroughfare to commemorate the country’s Independence Day, forgoing major public events in the hope of avoiding Russian missile strikes.
That was the country’s first Independence Day since Russia launched its full-scale invasion. Over the next 12 months, Ukrainian forces retook areas of territory in the northeast in September. Then, in November, they recaptured the port city of Kherson. The winter was cold and dark as Russian forces bombed Ukraine’s power grid, and in May, in a grinding battle, one of the war’s bloodiest, Ukraine lost the eastern city of Bakhmut. Now, Kyiv’s forces are struggling forward in another counteroffensive, this time, in a campaign to retake territory in the south and the east.
For Ukraine, it has been a long year. On Thursday, Ukrainians in the capital, Kyiv, once again milled about the destroyed Russian vehicles that lined Khreshchatyk Street and stood in front of Independence Square, also known as the Maidan. The atmosphere was almost museum-like. People were tired. The novelty of last year’s exhibit had worn off, as had the burst of euphoria that followed after Kyiv survived the war’s early months and repelled Russian advances.
Independence Day in Ukraine commemorates the country’s 1991 break from the Soviet Union, but also increasingly serves as a rallying point for Ukrainians to assert their identity and aspirations. Again, there were no public celebrations for this year’s national holiday — which also comes 18 months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Families hung around in the heat, speaking quietly. Ukrainian troops looked on as teenagers took selfies among the detritus of their struggles on the battlefield. Children wore baggy battalion T-shirts and Post Malone swag. A terrier, dressed in a pet-size Ukrainian vyshyvanka, a traditional embroidered shirt, trotted past a soldier who was on crutches, his right foot missing.
A young boy shouted, “Mom, why do the tanks look like this?” She explained: “They were on fire, and then the sun, wind and rain also did their work over time.”
Twin girls in matching dresses scampered by. Their mother, older brother and father followed behind. The girls pointed to the ground and the mud that had dried on the wheels of a Russian tank: “Look, the grass is still here.”
Indeed, even after being trucked from the battlefield to supply depots to downtown Kyiv, there were still pieces of the war on the destroyed vehicles’ hulls. Shell casings, melted ballistic glass, charred wood. Graffiti had appeared, too, with some of it commemorating the cities and towns ravaged by fighting: For Pisky, For Kramatorsk, For Melitopol, For Mariupol, For Sumy.
At the Maidan, home to the mass democracy protests that began in late 2013 and became a pivotal moment in Ukraine’s long collision course with Russia, relatives of soldiers in Ukraine’s 77th Airmobile Brigade tried to use the interest in the parade of tanks to draw attention to the plight of their sons and husbands, around 170 of whom had been missing for months, they said.
“People are more interested in machinery than in our problems,” said Nina Tkachenko, 46. Her husband had disappeared outside Bakhmut in January, she said, adding that the government had offered little help in her search for answers. She gestured to a poster of missing soldiers from the 77th.
“Every single life is an individual existence of a person who sacrificed themselves for the peace here,” she said.
Marc Santora contributed reporting.