On eve of Ukraine’s national day, fears Russia will pounce

KYIV, Ukraine — On the eve of Ukraine’s independence day and the half-year mark of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor, there was increasing unease in the country today that Moscow could be focusing on specific government and civilian targets during the holiday.

The United States reinforced those concerns when its embassy in Kyiv issued a security alert, saying it “has information that Russia is stepping up efforts to launch strikes against Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and government facilities in the coming days.”

On today’s Ukrainian Flag Day, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stressed defiance rather than worry when he raised the flag at a memorial.

“The blue and yellow flag of Ukraine will again fly where it rightfully should be. In all temporarily occupied cities and villages of Ukraine,” he said, including the Crimea peninsula which has been annexed by Russia since 2014.

At the weekend, Zelenskyy sensed a threat coming when he said in his daily address that “we should be aware that this week Russia may try to do something particularly nasty, something particularly cruel.”

The U.S. warning came on the heels of Russia’s claim that Ukrainian intelligence was responsible for the car bombing that killed the daughter of a leading right-wing Russian political thinker over the weekend. Ukraine denied involvement.

Hundreds of people lined up today to pay tributes to Darya Dugina, a 29-year-old commentator with a nationalist Russian TV channel who died when her SUV blew up Saturday night as she was driving on the outskirts of Moscow.

Her father, Alexander Dugin, a philosopher and political theorist who was believed to be the target, ardently supports Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops into Ukraine. “She lived for the sake of victory, and she died for the sake of victory. Our Russian victory, our truth,” Dugin said at a farewell ceremony.

The sense of dread pervading the war centers in part on Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, at Zaporizhzhia in southeastern Ukraine, where continued shelling and fighting in the area has raised fears of a nuclear catastrophe.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres late Monday warned about the nuclear threat in general, particularly since Russia alluded to its massive nuclear arsenal early in the war.

Guterres demanded a halt to “nuclear saber-rattling” on Monday, saying the world is at a “maximum moment of danger” and all countries with nuclear weapons must make a commitment to “no first-use.”

That didn’t prevent shelling close to Zaporizhzhia early today. Regional governor Valentyn Reznichenko said Russian forces fired on nearby Marhanets and Nikopol on the right bank of the Dnieper River, continuing weeks of relentless overnight shelling.

Meanwhile, the fate of Ukrainian prisoners of war is also raising worries. U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said she was “concerned by reports that the Russian Federation and affiliated armed groups in Donetsk are planning — possibly in the coming days — to try Ukrainian prisoners of war.” She said it is being labeled an “international tribunal” but that due process and a fair trial would not be guaranteed.

Amid the death and destruction, there was one small point of light. All professional soccer was stopped in February, but a new league season starts today in Kyiv.

The Olympic Stadium will see the the opening-day meeting of Shakhtar Donetsk and Metalist 1925 from Kharkiv — teams from eastern cities that are fighting for their very existence.

No fans will be allowed in the 65,000-capacity downtown stadium for the kickoff at 1 p.m. local time, and the players must be rushed to bomb shelters if air-raid sirens sound.

“The teams, the players will be proud of this event,” Shakhtar captain Taras Stepanenko said Monday in a telephone interview with The Associated Press.