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Ukraine marks first 'Defenders Day' with harsh words for Putin

The first annual "Defenders Day" was marked with an air of defiance directed at Moscow. (FoxNews.com)

The first annual "Defenders Day" was marked with an air of defiance directed at Moscow. (FoxNews.com)

There was no mistaking the message that Ukraine’s first ever "Defenders Day," sent to Russian President Vladimir Putin as enthusiastic crowds flocked to see new military hardware and hear a raft of speakers, including President Petro Poroshenko, in central Kiev on Wednesday.

The Oct. 14 event was created by presidential decree in response to the ongoing dispute with Russia over territory in eastern Ukraine and Crimea in what has already been a bloody conflict. It has officially replaced the long-standing Feb. 23 holiday known as the "Defender of the Fatherland Day," due to that holiday’s connections to the Soviet era.

“Ukrainians [are] capable of defending their land from invaders,” Poroshenko told the rally made up of people enjoying the sunshine on this inaugural public holiday. “We do not need foreign troops. The Ukrainian people have sufficient military capabilities and fortitude to protect their land from the invaders. But we are grateful for defensive non-lethal weapons that we are finally receiving now.”

“Ukrainians [are] capable of defending their land from invaders.”

- Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko

“Today, at this exhibition you can see samples of military equipment produced not only by Ukraine,” Poroshenko added, pointing to the display of military hardware brought to the square, apparently to boost public morale. “There is the equipment supplied to us by our allies and partners."

Poroshenko’s coalition government, supported by both the U.S. and the European Union, has recently received a welcome boost, including “non-lethal” military assistance from America through the delivery of Q36 mobile counter battery radar systems which, according to experts, may well reduce the number of Ukrainian fatalities should hostilities break out again. The U.S. has also provided Ukraine with humanitarian aid since the start of the conflict.

Most deaths to date have reportedly been from artillery shells fired by rebel forces allegedly backed by Moscow. Russia has repeatedly denied any connection to the militias, but readily points out that an overwhelming majority of eastern Ukrainians – most of ethnic Russian descent -  voted to ally themselves closer to Moscow rather than Kiev in last November’s Donbass elections that were considered illegal by most western governments.

The Kiev rally saw thousands of banner- and flag-waving Ukrainians – although some observers noted there were less than some reports had anticipated - marking the independence of the country’s military. There could be no mistaking the contempt felt by the crowd for Russia. Youth groups handed out free bracelets with the slogan “F**k You Putin,” and rolls of toilet paper displaying the Russian leader’s face have long proved popular souvenirs among locals and tourists alike.

With Ukraine’s government made up of parties from a wide political spectrum – including a number from far-right nationalist camps – it appeared that not everyone was welcome in the square as the authorities appeared keen to ensure no unsightly altercations would spoil the atmosphere. One of the more anarchic organizations attempting to breach security barriers whilst in possession of weapons was refused entry to the square in tense stand-offs with Ukrainian police.  

Other groups however, including those carrying the red and black flags of the wartime Ukrainian Insurgent Army and lauding the wartime Nazi sympathizer and Ukrainian leader Stepan Bandera, were very much in evidence displaying images of the controversial World War II Ukrainian nationalist leader alongside the blue and yellow national flag.

Bandera has long been a divisive figure, having collaborated with the Nazis and whose forces actively participated in the mass murder of Jews following the German occupation of Ukraine in 1941. Ironically, Bandera himself was later sent to a concentration camp after falling out with the Germans, a factor that saw him elevated to even greater heights by those who saw him as a resistance figure against both Germany and the Soviet Union. The latter’s KGB eventually assassinated the controversial figure in 1959.

In 2010, Bandera was awarded the posthumous honor of ‘Hero of Ukraine’ by former president Viktor Yuschenko, but after uproar from the international community and Jewish organizations that honor was annulled three months later. The presence of Bandera-supporting factions in the Poroshenko government has prompted accusations from Putin that far-right fascists and Nazi sympathizers still run strong in the current Ukrainian politics and that the EU and US should be wary of who they are supporting.

“We are not here to support Nazism; we are here to support Ukrainian independence” Slava, a young Ukrainian bedecked in the red and black flag favored by Bandera supporters told FoxNews.com. “This is all about supporting our military and sending a message to Russia that we will always be ready to defend every inch of our homeland.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist. Follow him on Twitter @paul_alster and visit his website: www.paulalster.com.