KIEV, Ukraine – Ukraine’s president announced plans Aug. 24 to boost his country’s defense spending by an estimated 50 percent as government forces seek to overpower pro-Russian separatists in the east.
President Petro Poroshenko pledged to spend an extra 40 billion hryvnia ($3 billion) by 2017 during a speech marking Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union in 1991.
More than 20,000 people, many waving the country’s blue and yellow flag or donning traditional embroidered shirts, gathered to hear Poroshenko and watch an ostentatious military display in Kiev’s Independence Square, where months of protests earlier this year ended in the ouster of the country’s former pro-Russian president. During the parade, tanks and other armored vehicles rumbled past in a show of strength.
It is clear that in the foreseeable future there will always, unfortunately, be the threat of war, Poroshenko said. And we not only have to learn to live with that. We must always be prepared to defend our independence.
Poroshenko warned that Ukraine has repeatedly suffered threats and actual invasion from its eastern border with Russia and we have typically not expected it.
Responding to criticisms that army equipment was being wasted on the Aug. 24 ceremonies, he also told the crowd that the troops, tanks and other weaponry would head immediately east after the parade.
Poroshenko’s plans for extra spending would represent an additional 50 percent on top of Ukraine’s current defense spending, projected to reach $1.5 billion this year. Ukrainian military leaders have pleaded for extra resources as they face a potentially protracted fight against separatists in the country’s Russian-speaking industrial east.
In recent weeks, Kiev’s troops have routed the insurgents in much of the region and encircled them in Luhansk and Donetsk, the regional capitals. The United Nations estimates that more than 2,000 civilians have been killed in the fighting since April, and toll rises daily.
Andriy Lysenko, spokesman for the Ukrainian National Security Council, told journalists that 722 members of Ukraine’s armed forces have died in the fighting, with five killed and eight wounded in the past day alone.
In the rebel stronghold of Donetsk, militants responded to Kiev’s Independence Day festivities by placing the wreckage of several Ukrainian military vehicles in the city’s main square.
Several hundred onlookers, who trickled into the largely empty square ahead of a parade announced by the fighters, gawked at the shrapnel-mangled equipment. Russian nationalist songs blasted from speakers as supporters posed for photos in front of a destroyed tank.
Today is the so-called independence day of what was Ukraine. And look what has happened to their equipment. This is what has become of Ukraine! said a pro-Russian rebel fighter who identified herself by her battle name, Nursa, pointing at the remains of a Ukrainian troop transport.
The crowd appeared on edge as dozens of fighters gathered in formation, then quickly dispersed at the sound of artillery fire in the distance.
One onlooker grabbed a Ukrainian flag from the wreckage of a burned-out tank and threw it to the ground and several others trampled on it, wiping their feet and spitting.
Alexander, a 40-year-old businessman from Donetsk who declined to give his surname, said the Ukrainian flag had no place in the city.
I feel this is no place for this flag. The great achievement here is that people can see it in the state that it deserves to be in, he said.
Resentment has grown in the east as residential areas have increasingly come under fire. Early Aug. 24, artillery shells struck several residential buildings as well as a major hospital and morgue in downtown Donetsk, although nobody was reported killed.
In Kiev, Lysenko denied that Ukraine’s forces were responsible for the shelling of any residential buildings or hospitals.
Donetsk feels like a ghost town as an estimated 300,000 of the city’s 1 million residents have fled the fighting. Many of those who remain have gone weeks without electricity or running water, and spent recent days staked out in bomb shelters.
Conditions are worse in the city of Luhansk, whose war-reduced population of a quarter-million people has suffered under constant fighting over the past weeks.
Lysenko said that 68 civilians had been wounded there in the past 24 hours, but could not confirm whether anyone had been killed.