KYIV and LONDON -- As Ukraine prepared on Wednesday to celebrate its Independence Day, residents of Kyiv, the capital, took to the streets to take photographs with rows of destroyed Russian tanks, which have become a symbol of Russia’s failed strategy to take the city.
The Russian army may have failed in its early plans to replace the Ukrainian government, but a war of attrition has set into the country’s east, with analysts warning that the war may drag on for months or even years.
Despite the presence of the tanks, the atmosphere in the capital this week has been mostly muted, residents said. But authorities have warned that Independence Day may bring renewed Russian strikes on the city, far away from the frontlines.
The United States repeated those warnings, with Americans being advised to leave the country via private means. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv said the State Department “has information that Russia is stepping up efforts to launch strikes against Ukraine's civilian infrastructure and government facilities in the coming days."
With the city on high alert and the country under assault, the overlap of the two anniversaries has proven to be a moment for Ukrainians to reflect on the meaning of their independence.
Ukraine issued its Declaration of Independence from the Soviet Union on Aug. 24, 1991. The day has since been one of Ukraine’s state holidays, usually marked by a military parade.
"During these six months, we changed history, changed the world and changed ourselves," President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in a speech on Wednesday. "And the whole world learned who Ukrainians are. What Ukraine is. No one will say about it anymore: it is somewhere over there, near Russia."
The Ukrainian public not only supports the struggle to liberate the Russian controlled-areas, but has said it believes that Ukraine will win the war, according to polling in the country, though reports suggest Ukrainians are more divided on how much territory taken back would constitute a victory.
But it has also left a nation traumatized by war. Millions have been displaced and hundreds of civilians are killed each week, according to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. Humanitarians fear that the winter will bring more misery. There have been almost 1,000 verified deaths of children, according to the U.N., though observers say this number is likely higher.
For many, independence now carries a new significance.
“When Ukraine became an independent country, I was a little kid, I was only ten and at that time, I really couldn’t understand what is going on around, but I have heard many times from my grandmother about evil of Russian empire,” Andriy, 41, a musician, traumatologist and radio anchor from Lviv who now serves as a medic on the southern front, told ABC News. “When [the] Russian war exploded with more power on February 24, now I understand independence of Ukraine as [an] absolutely new thing.”
German, a 59-year-old Kyiv resident, said there is a new clarity about what it means to be an independent country on the eve of the anniversary.
“Until February 24, 2022, there was no clearly formed understanding of independence,” he told ABC News. “After the start of the war, the vision was as follows: independence is free people hardened into a nation that moves its state forward.”
For some of the displaced, being forced to flee from the east has uprooted their sense of local identity and connection to home, even if they believe in Ukraine’s ultimate victory.
“Maybe now I will sound in a stupid way, but I don't want to adapt, to adjust,” Yana, a 32-year-old who left the city of Kharkiv in March to the comparatively safe western city of Lviv, told ABC News. “No, not because I'm somehow abnormal, just because I don't have a sense of home anywhere… Lviv is a wonderful city, and Vinnytsia, and Poltava, and Kremenchuk, and all other cities, but my home is not there.”
“What has changed now, every minute of our existence, we need to prove and fight for our independence,” she said. “Which until February 24 was a common thing and understandable to everyone.”
For many Ukrainians, the war has changed not just their understanding of independence, but their entire lives, forever.
“Adaptation is very simple,” German said. “It will never be the same again, as it was before. So I do what I can for the victory.”