Ukrainian church leaders have marked their country’s thirtieth year of independence by urging national unity against the backdrop of a new Russian military build-up on the border.
“For centuries, the consciousness of Ukrainians has been shaped by freedom and dignity,” said Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk of Kiev-Halych, whose Ukrainian Catholic Church combines the Eastern rite with loyalty to Rome. “In the most difficult periods, people would and could not accept that the most important things were being taken away – bread, language, faith, freedom, the dream of an independent state. This enzyme of resistance has manifested itself in Ukrainian society through modern times in the Maidan revolution and the war with Russia.”
The archbishop spoke in a special TV broadcast as tens of thousands rallied in Kiev, Lviv and other cities on a Day of Dignity and Freedom commemorating Ukraine’s 1991 independence after seven decades of Soviet rule.
He said the country was still “suffering and fighting for freedom”, adding that “resistance of evil” involved the defence of inalienable God-given dignity, and should never be considered “fruitless and useless”.
Russia forcibly annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in early 2014, in the aftermath of Maidan, and has since backed a separatist uprising in its self-declared Luhansk and Donetsk republics, triggering a war with Ukrainian government forces which has left more than 14,000 fighters and civilians dead.
More than 92,000 Russian troops are reported to have massed on Ukraine’s northern, eastern and southern borders, from Belarus to Crimea over the past month, sparking renewed fears of a full-scale invasion.
Speaking last week in the US, Ukraine defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov, said that President Vladimir Putin appeared to be “playing chess” with his country’s western neighbours.
Meanwhile, a senior Ukrainian army general, Kyrylo Budanov, said that a threepronged offensive could include airstrikes, artillery bombardments, amphibious landings and ground incursions, adding that Ukraine, which signed an arms deal with Britain earlier this month, urgently needed more air, missile, drone and electronic jamming facilities.
However, claims of a planned invasion were dismissed as “hysterical” at the weekend by the Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, who accused the US and Nato of preparing “possible provocations” by despatching ships to the Black Sea and pledging military support to Ukraine.
Speaking on Sunday, as citycentre services and processions were held in commemoration of recent war casualties, as well as those injured and killed during Ukraine’s 2004-5 Orange Revolution and 2014 Revolution of Dignity, which was centred on Kiev’s Maidan Square, the primate of the new independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, said both uprisings had confirmed Ukraine’s “European identity”.
He added that it had proved costly to defend its “values and ideals”, but said clergy of all Christian Churches had played a key role, often unnoticed, in creating a necessary “mental and spiritual revival”.
“Although the state is separated from the Church under our constitution, I am glad ours has always been with the Ukrainian people, closely linked as body and soul,” the 42-year-old metropolitan wrote on Facebook. “With God’s blessing, support and help, the occupied and annexed territories will be reintegrated, and we will gain a just peace for Ukraine.”