Ukraine Parades for Independence Day Under Putin's Shadow

While the rest of the country took to the streets to celebrate Kiev’s 23 years of independence from Moscow, rebels in the east dragged out prisoners of war for a ‘parade of shame.’

Gleb Garanich/Reuters

Blue-and-yellow outfits, streets and homes decorated with flags, blue and yellow ribbons on baby carriages—this was Independence Day across Ukraine on Sunday, at least away from the war zone. The two symbolic colors of the country’s flag, blue for the peaceful sky and yellow for a golden field, merged into solid national pride for Ukrainian patriots. And in the midst of a violent conflict with pro-Russian rebels in the east, national pride and the struggle for freedom have a deeper meaning than ever.

Kiev celebrated the national holiday with a military parade, with thousands of people along the route wrapped in flags or wearing traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirts. Patriotism and solidarity seemed to fill the air over the city’s central avenue, Khreshchatyk, and its main square, the Maidan. Spectators cheered the tight rows of soldiers in brand new uniforms marching shoulder to shoulder in green berets or desert camouflage uniforms.

Many units headed directly to the front lines in the east, along with armored personnel carriers and tanks deployed to the war zone. The Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, spoke to parade-goers about the undeclared war that Ukraine had been forced into; the president promised to invest billions of hryvnias to support and equip the army.

The parade was meant to strengthen the patriotic feelings of the young Ukrainians whom Kiev needs to volunteer for the military, and for at least one observer, it evoked memories of the past. “It was both beautiful and scary,” Nadezhda Kovalska told The Daily Beast in an interview on Sunday in Kiev. The scene reminded Kovalska of the World War II parade Stalin held on Red Square to boost the morale of the Soviet troops fighting the Nazis across the Soviet Union. Then, as now, soldiers marched from the parade straight to the battlefield. “My eyes were full of tears when I looked at those fit young guys, the best of the best in our country, marching away, some to die or be taken prisoner,” Kovalska said.

Many Ukrainian women shed tears on Sunday. As Kiev celebrated its independence, pro-Russian rebels in the separatist Donetsk People’s Republic staged their own parade, “a parade of shame,” attended by a crowd a few hundred strong. There were no blue-and-yellow flags to be seen in that part of the country, which is supported by Russia and fighting a separatist war to break away from Ukraine. Their “parade of shame” Sunday horrified many in Ukraine: Rebel gunmen pushed their prisoners of war, Ukrainian soldiers, along Donetsk’s main Artema street, past angry locals throwing eggs, tomatoes, and beer bottles at the prisoners. “Fascists! Beat them up!” women shouted at the disoriented prisoners, captured during Kiev’s anti-terrorist operation in the east. To underscore the “shame,” street sweepers followed along behind the prisoners, cleaning the street.

What the Donetsk rebels did was “a violation of all international rules and conventions prohibiting the humiliation of prisoners—this is just as absolutely unacceptable as torture,” Tatyana Lokshina, Human Rights Watch’s Russia program director, told The Daily Beast on Sunday. The parade of prisoners in Donetsk also brought back memories of World War II to many, of black-and-white documentary footage from 1944 of German prisoners being paraded before crowds in Moscow—back then, street cleaners also washed the street after them, in a symbolic gesture.

Hate escalated on both sides of the conflict Sunday. The POW parade in Donetsk infuriated Ukrainian nationalists, with some calling for the rebels to be “turned into Grozny,” in reference to the Russian army’s destruction of the Chechen capital during the two recent wars. Police arrested five activists trying to hang a Ukrainian flag on a bridge by the Kremlin in Moscow. Meanwhile, pro-Russia activists threw smoke grenades and distributed fliers that said: “Death to Kiev’s Junta and Poroshenko!”

Alexander Dugin, a pro-Kremlin Russian nationalist leader and an inspiration behind the rebel uprising in eastern Ukraine, also spoke of killing Ukrainians on Russian social media: “These imbeciles are asking for genocide.” A Russian parliament deputy, Ilya Drozdov, tweeted: “The sooner the bastard entity called Ukraine is wiped off the map, the better.”

The longer the conflict unfolds, the more violence “the utterly trapped civilians” will suffer in eastern Ukraine, Lokshina said. “We monitor both Russian and Ukrainian Grad rocket systems and other heavy, destructive weapons used in the Luhansk and Donetsk regions by both Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces,” Lokshina said. For weeks, anti-Kiev rebels have been asking Russia to help them get more weapons. The leader of the Donetsk rebel republic, Alexander Zakharchenko, confirmed receiving 150 armored vehicles including 30 tanks this month; he also said more than 1,200 Russia-trained rebels recently joined the republic’s forces.

Experts on both sides of the conflict, which has already claimed more than 2,000 lives, said they did not expect peace to come to Ukraine soon. The arms race, hatred, and vindictiveness on both sides is only building. This weekend, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, pressed for peace in Kiev, before an upcoming meeting on Tuesday between presidents Putin and Poroshenko. “Now action must follow,” she said.