Meanwhile, Russian-backed rebels in the eastern city of Donetsk held a parade of their own, in which they displayed destroyed Ukrainian artillery, and marched prisoners of war through the center of town at gunpoint.
About 1,500 uniformed soldiers, 120 of whom had recently returned from the frontlines of the fight against rebels in the east, strutted in unison in a symbolic show of strength down Kiev’s central Khreshchatyk Street and through Independence Square, or Maidan, where protesters in February toppled former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych, setting the current conflict in motion.
On their heels were some 90 military vehicles, including armored personnel carriers and trucks hauling heavy artillery, as well as Grad multiple launch missile systems and ballistic missile systems.
Tens of thousands of Ukrainians, many donning traditional embroidered shirts or clothes in blue and yellow — the national colors -– waved to them, and sang Ukraine's anthem as the flag was raised.
The parade gave Kiev the chance to exhibit a revitalized military force that it hopes will quash the separatist rebellion raging in the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Addressing a roaring crowd beneath sunny skies, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Sunday marked the dawn of a new era for Ukraine’s army.
“A new military column is heading directly to the zone of the ‘anti-terrorist’ operation,” he said, referring to the term used by the government to describe its military operation in the country’s east.
Military officials said earlier in the week that the vehicles shown in the parade, as well as many of the servicemen, would be transported to the east immediately after the event.
Poroshenko used the event as an opportunity to announce his plan to invest 40 billion hryvnias, about $3 billion, in Ukraine’s fledgling armed forces over the next three years.
It is “only a modest beginning” in resurrecting the army, he said, but it will allow for the purchase of new warplanes, warships and helicopters.
News of the investment comes, as tensions with Moscow flare, and tens of thousands of Russian troops and military hardware amass near the western border, within mere kilometers of the Ukrainian frontier.
“War has come to us from over the horizon where it was never expected,” Poroshenko added, referring indirectly to Russia.
Kiev and the West have blamed Moscow for fomenting the unrest in eastern Ukraine, and arming separatists there.
NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said this week that the organization had observed a “major escalation” in Russian military involvement in the region recently, including direct artillery support both from across the border and within Ukraine.
Previously, NATO said it had “also seen transfers of large quantities of advanced weapons, including tanks, armored personnel carriers and artillery to separatist groups in Eastern Ukraine.”
Western journalists following a convoy of humanitarian aid sent from Moscow last week also observed a column of 23 military vehicles passing through an opening in the border fence to Ukraine.
Russia has vehemently denied supplying the rebels in eastern Ukraine with weapons and reinforcements.
While the military parade in Kiev was greeted warmly by many, critics have said its timing is inappropriate, given the war is still raging in the country’s east, and soldiers there need vehicles to bolster their lines and reinforcements to replace those who have spent more than four months engaged in fierce combat.
Some 568 Ukrainian servicemen have been killed and more than 2,120 injured since the onslaught of the violence in mid-April, according to official government figures released this month.
In addition, the United Nations said more than 2,000 civilians have died during the conflict, and around 5,000 have been wounded.
Ukraine’s military has gained ground during a big push over the past month, tightening the noose around the separatist strongholds of Donetsk and Luhansk.
The military parade in Kiev was the first of its kind since 2009.
Former pro-Russia Ukrainian president Yanukovych, who was elected in 2010 and overthrown by anti-government protesters during last winter’s Euromaidan Revolution, banned such events under his rule.
For 32-year-old Rostislav Sosnovyy who moved from Artemivsk, eastern Ukraine to Kiev in June to escape the fighting, the parade made Sunday feel like “the first real Independence Day.”
“We will have more difficult times ahead,” Sosnovyy told Mashable, “but this is the road to independence.”
Svitlana Shevchenko, 23, who came with her 6-year-old daughter Masha, said the parade was necessary to boost not only the morale of Ukraine’s military, but also that of ordinary Ukrainians.
“It is important for the army to show it is strong right now and can defeat the terrorists [in eastern Ukraine],” she said while affixing a flower wreath atop Masha’s blonde head.
“But it is also very important for us — ordinary people -– to show we support this action.”
Some parade-goers were more ambivalent about the event.
Retired university professor Iryna Kovalenko, 63, supports Ukraine’s military operation in eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions, calling it “necessary,” but believes a military parade at this time to be in poor taste.
“While [the government] is showing off its new equipment in Kiev, our boys are dying on the frontlines,” she said.
“They need these guns there more than we do here.”
Meanwhile, in Donetsk, Russia-backed rebels held a rival parade.
On Sunday afternoon, burned-out Ukrainian armored vehicles, including tanks and other destroyed military hardware, were presented at the city’s central Lenin Square, in the shadow of the former Communist leader.
On Artema Street, rebels with bayonets affixed to their rifles marched some 50 to 60 long-faced Ukrainian prisoners of war, their hands tied behind their backs, past hundreds of sneering onlookers.
“Fascists! Fascists!” the crowd chanted, as the POWs passed, their heads hanging low.
Some in the crowd hurled bags of flour at the captives, while others spat at their feet.
Following them close behind was a street cleaning machine, which sprayed water on the road upon which the POWs marched, as if to “cleanse” it, Russia’s LifeNews reported.
Sunday morning, shells rained down on Donetsk, striking the Kalinina Hospital, and damaging much of its mortuary just after 6 a.m., local time.
While it is unclear which side fired the shells that struck the hospital, it is likely to have been a target of the Ukrainian forces, since the rebels have used it to treat their wounded fighters during the conflict.