Ukraine nervously braced for what President Volodymyr Zelenskyy warned could be especially brutal Russian attacks Wednesday as the country observed its Independence Day — and marked the war's six-month point — under conditions considered too dangerous to allow any major public celebrations in the capital.
Residents of Kyiv woke up to air raid sirens, but there were no immediate airstrikes. The capital has been largely spared from attack in recent months, as a war that was widely expected to be a lightning conquest by Moscow turned into a grinding conflict fought largely in the east and south.
Outgoing British Prime Minister Boris Johnson marked the holiday with a visit to Kyiv — his third since the war started — and other European leaders used the occasion to pledge unwavering support for the country and pay tribute to the sacrifices of its people. The U.S. announced a major new military aid package totaling nearly $3 billion to help Ukrainian forces fight for years to come.
Independence Day commemorates Ukraine's 1991 declaration of independence from the Soviet Union.
Kyiv authorities banned large gatherings in the capital through Thursday, fearing the national holiday might bring particularly heavy Russian missile strikes.
"Russian provocations and brutal strikes are a possibility," Zelenskyy said in a statement. "Please strictly follow the safety rules. Please observe the curfew. Pay attention to the air sirens. Pay attention to official announcements. And remember: We must all achieve victory together."
Nevertheless, a festive atmosphere prevailed at Kyiv's Maidan square as thousands of Kyiv residents posed for pictures next to burned-out Russian tanks put on display. Folk singers set up, and many revelers — ignoring the sirens — were out and about in traditionally embroidered dresses and shirts.
Others were fearful.
"I can't sleep at night because of what I see and hear about what is being done in Ukraine," said a retiree who gave only her first name, Tetyana, her voice shaking with emotion. "This is not a war. It is the destruction of the Ukrainian people."
In a holiday message to the country, Zelenskyy said: "Six months ago, Russia declared war on us. On Feb. 24, all of Ukraine heard explosions and gunshots. ... On Feb. 24, we were told: You have no chance. On Aug. 24, we say: Happy Independence Day, Ukraine!"
U.S. President Joe Biden said the latest American aid package will allow Ukraine to acquire air defense and artillery systems and other weapons.
"I know this Independence Day is bittersweet for many Ukrainians as thousands have been killed or wounded, millions have been displaced from their homes, and so many others have fallen victim to Russian atrocities and attacks," President Biden said. "But six months of relentless attacks have only strengthened Ukrainians' pride in themselves, in their country, and in their 31 years of independence."
Britain's Johnson urged Western allies to maintain their support of Ukraine through the winter.
"This is not the time to put forward flimsy negotiating proposals," he said. "You can't negotiate with a bear when it's eating your leg or with a street robber when he has you pinned to the floor."
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz rebuked the Kremlin for its "backward imperialism" and declared that Ukraine "will drive away the dark shadow of war because it is strong and brave, because it has friends in Europe and all over the world."
A car bombing outside Moscow that killed the 29-year-old daughter of right-wing Russian political theorist Alexander Dugin on Saturday also heightened fears that Russia might intensify attacks on Ukraine this week. Russian officials have blamed Ukraine for the death of Darya Dugina, a pro-Kremlin TV commentator. Ukraine has denied any involvement.
Russian President Vladimir Putin's forces have encountered unexpectedly stiff Ukrainian resistance in their invasion and abandoned their effort to storm the capital in the spring. The fighting has turned into a war of attrition that has reduced neighborhoods to rubble and sent shock waves through the world economy.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, speaking Wednesday at a meeting of his counterparts from a security organization dominated by Russia and China, claimed the slow pace of Moscow's military action was due to what he said was an effort to spare civilians.
Russian forces have repeatedly targeted civilian areas in cities, including hospitals and a Mariupol theater where hundreds of people were taking shelter.
But Shoigu said Russia is carrying out strikes with precision weapons against Ukrainian military targets, and "everything is done to avoid civilian casualties."
"Undoubtedly, it slows down the pace of the offensive, but we do it deliberately," he said.
He also criticized the U.S. and its allies for "continuing to pump weapons into Ukraine," saying the aid is dragging out the conflict and increasing the number of victims.
On the battlefield, Russian forces struck several towns and villages in Donetsk province in the east over 24 hours, killing one person, authorities said.
In the Dnipropetrovsk region on the southern front, the Russians again shelled the cities of Nikopol and Marhanets, damaging several buildings and wounding two people, authorities said. Russian troops also shelled the city of Zaporizhzhia, but no casualties were reported.
Additional reporting by The Associated Press.