By Richard Balmforth and Thomas Grove
KIEV: (Reuters) – Ukraine marked its independence day on Sunday with a military march-past in Kiev intended to send a message of defiance to Russia, but pro-Moscow rebels countered by parading captured Ukrainian troops through the streets of their main stronghold.
The rival events highlighted the divide that will have to be bridged if a compromise on Ukraine is to be reached on Tuesday when Russian President Vladimir Putin meets his Ukrainian counterpart Petro Poroshenko for the first time in months.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who visited Kiev on Saturday to try to lay the ground-work for a peace deal, said Tuesday’s talks were unlikely to produce a breakthrough.
Kiev’s forces are trying to crush a pro-Moscow separatist revolt in the east of Ukraine, and on Sunday intense artillery fire could be heard around the main rebel bastion of Donetsk.
On Independence Square in the Ukrainian capital Kiev — scene of protests that pushed out a Moscow-backed president in February and precipitated the current crisis — President Poroshenko reviewed columns of men and armoured vehicles.
Some of the troops in the march-past were shortly heading to the front line in eastern Ukraine, Poroshenko said.
In an emotional speech, he said his country was fighting “a war against external aggression, for Ukraine, for its freedom, for its people, for independence”.
“It is clear that in the foreseeable future, unfortunately, a constant military threat will hang over Ukraine. And we need to learn not only to live with this, but also to be always prepared to defend the independence of our country,” he said.
Poroshenko announced about $3 billion would be spent on re-equipping the army in 2015-2017. Ukraine’s armed forces are only a fraction of the size of those in Russia.
After Ukraine’s previous president, Viktor Yanukovich, fled to Russia, Moscow annexed Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula in March and parts of the Russian-speaking east rebelled against Kiev.
Kiev and its Western allies accuse Moscow of funnelling weapons and men secretly into eastern Ukraine to shore up the struggling rebellion, a claim Moscow denies. Russia has called for an urgent ceasefire to provide help to trapped civilians.
In separatist-held Donetsk, about 100 people introduced over a public address system as Ukrainian prisoners-of-war were marched through the city’s central Lenin Square on Sunday.