KYIV, UKRAINE - Brandishing red flares and shouting "glory to Ukraine," thousands of far-right and nationalist activists marched Monday through Kyiv, protesting President Volodymyr Zelenskiy's leadership and his long-awaited peace plan for eastern Ukraine.
Zelenskiy sought to prove his patriotic credentials by visiting Ukrainian troops on the front line of the five-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists, which has killed at least 13,000 people. Earlier Monday, he held a moment of silence at a monument to its Ukrainian victims.
Police deployed around key sites in the Ukrainian capital as more than 10,000 people marched under a blanket of yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flags, in one of several nationalist gatherings Monday to mark Defense of the Homeland Day. Zelenskiy urged participants to avoid violence and warned of potential "provocations" from those who want to stoke chaos.
Black-clad men holding up red flares like torches led the procession, some in white masks to conceal their identity.
"Glory to Ukraine!" they chanted. "No capitulation!"
The crowd included uniformed veterans of the conflict who are urging Zelenskiy not to allow a troop withdrawal, local elections or amnesty for separatists. All are elements of a long-stalled peace plan that the Ukrainian president is trying to revive.
"What price is Zelenskiy ready to pay? He's ready to sell all of us out to make peace with Russia. And we will not be silent," said 46-year-old veteran Taras Volochko.
"Withdrawing troops is a catastrophe for the country. Russia is using the situation to seize the territories we withdraw from," Andriy Biletsky, head of the far-right group National Corps, told The Associated Press.
Zelenskiy, a comedian who rose to the presidency this year on promises to end the conflict, thanked Ukrainian troops for defending the country from outside influence - and urged them to "come back alive."
"Ukraine is an independent, sovereign, unified and democratic state," he told them, concluding his speech with his own "Glory to Ukraine!"
Ukraine, Russia and the separatists signed a preliminary agreement earlier this month to pull back heavy weaponry and to hold an election in the area at a later date. The pullback has not occurred because of shelling from both sides and threats from Ukrainian hardliners to hamper the disengagement.
Zelenskiy is sticking to the accord, insisting that it's the only way for his country to move forward.
He still enjoys the support of most Ukrainians, who argue he needs to be given time to fulfil his promises to revive the economy. Ukrainians have also shrugged off his embarrassing phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump that unleashed an impeachment inquiry in the United States.
"I love my country but I'm not like those nationalists, I don't have time for protests. And what good does that bring?" asked Nadiya Kuzmenko, 68, a former arms factory worker who cleans houses to supplement her $125 monthly pension.
The marchers in Kyiv rallied at the Maidan square, a symbol of Ukrainian uprisings against Russian influence. Thousands continued on to the presidential headquarters overlooking the capital. Kyiv authorities said the main march ended peacefully.
A crowd in front of the president's administration accused Zelenskiy of being a "servant of the Kremlin" who is trying to "strike a deal with the devil."
Critics call the accord a "capitulation" to Russia and fear it will lead to Russia having the upper hand in deciding the future for the conflict-torn region. "Peace after Victory" read one huge banner.
The head of one of the protesting groups, Veterans' Brotherhood, said Zelenskiy held a closed-door meeting with nationalist groups last week to try to explain his position and calm tensions, but claimed the president said he has "no plan."
While the nationalist groups gathered at key sites in Kyiv, at other spots in the city families with strollers just enjoyed the holiday, eating ice cream and basking in an unusually warm autumn day.