KYIV -- Ukraine marked 25 years of independence from the Soviet Union on August 24 with a massive parade of soldiers and heavy weaponry through central Kyiv, in a show of force designed to boost the morale of the country’s servicemen and reassure Ukrainians amid heightened tensions with Russia.
Flanked by battle tanks, missile carriers, and other equipment, hundreds of uniformed troops marched through Independence Square in the country’s largest military procession since it declared independence in 1991.
“Independence has given us democracy and freedom, the feeling of civic dignity and national unity,” President Petro Poroshenko said, addressing the crowd.
Thousands of flag-waving Ukrainians dressed in traditional embroidered shirts cheered, “Glory to Ukraine!” and “Death to enemies!” -- chants popularized during the Euromaidan protests that drove a Russia-backed president from power in 2014. Generals saluted from armored transport vehicles and the national anthem rang out: “The glory and the freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”
Parliament in Ukraine adopted an independence declaration on August 24, 1991, three days after the collapse of a hard-line coup attempt in Moscow that was meant to prevent the Soviet Union from falling apart. Ukrainians overwhelmingly approved independence in a December 1, 1991, referendum, and the Soviet Union ceased to exist later that month.
Independence Day celebrations have taken on a martial tone since Russia seized the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014 and fomented separatism in eastern Ukraine, where a war that started that April has killed more than 9,500 people. Poroshenko said in his address that 2,504 Ukrainian servicemen are among the dead but that “the enemy has failed…to bring Ukraine to its knees.”
WATCH: Ukraine Rehearses For Independence Day Military Parade
Besides potentially boosting morale, the large-scale military parades have enabled Kyiv to showcase its military, which has been revitalized after deteriorating following the Soviet collapse.
In 2014, Independence Day came amid a major offensive by the Russia-backed separatists that killed hundreds of Ukrainian troops, led to a demoralizing battlefield defeat, and more or less solidified the conflict lines. Kyiv then agreed to a cease-fire deal -- the first of two agreements known as the Minsk accords -- on terms critics say were beneficial to Moscow.
This year, there are fears that another offensive is looming.
INFOGRAPHIC: Ukraine Besieged (click to enlarge)
Fighting between Ukrainian forces and Russia-backed separatists has flared in eastern Ukraine since June, with Kyiv suffering its worst battlefield casualties in a year. Officials in Kyiv say Russia has increased its troop presence near Ukraine’s borders, and Russian accusations that Kyiv tried to stage attacks in Crimea early in August -- denied by Ukraine -- have added to the tension.
Last week, Poroshenko warned of the possibility of a “full-scale invasion on all fronts” and put Ukraine’s military on high alert. He said that he was prepared to impose martial law should the situation worsen.
Surrounded by military materiel during the August 24 celebration, Poroshenko told Ukrainians: “Today, our main guarantor is the armed forces of Ukraine. And this is much more serious than the Budapest memorandum,” a reference to a treaty signed in 1994 by Ukraine, Russia, and the United States.
The accord was meant to provide security assurances by its signatories in return for Ukraine giving up its nuclear weapons. But many Ukrainians have deemed the deal a failure after Russia’s military-backed annexation of Crimea and its interference in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv and NATO say Russia has sent large numbers of troops and weapons during the conflict.
While the idea of parading deadly weapons through the capital irked some Ukrainians, others said the event gave them a sense of pride.
“The parade is for our patriotism. It is important to raise the spirits of Ukrainians, especially when we are at war,” said Volodymyr Bondarchuk, 74, a Soviet Army veteran who wore a pressed suit and a medal commemorating his service.
Russia's interference in Ukraine has badly strained ties between Moscow and the West.
Congratulating Ukraine on behalf of President Barack Obama "and the American people," U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was "deeply impressed by all you have accomplished in the more than two years since the Revolution of Dignity," as many Ukrainians call the Euromaidan protests.
"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," efforts that "have required perseverance and sacrifice," Kerry said in a statement.
"The United States will stand by you as you continue to strengthen your democracy," he said. "With our European partners, we will also press for full implementation of the Minsk agreements to end Russian aggression in Donbas and return the international border to Ukrainian control. We remain steadfast in our refusal to recognize Russia’s attempted annexation of Crimea."