Zelensky eyes 'victory this year' as first Western tanks arrive in Ukraine

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov stand next to the first Leopard 2 tanks delivered from Poland at an undisclosed location, on February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Picture: Governmental Press Service/ REUTERS

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov stand next to the first Leopard 2 tanks delivered from Poland at an undisclosed location, on February 24, 2023, the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Picture: Governmental Press Service/ REUTERS

Published Feb 24, 2023


Kyiv - President Volodymyr Zelensky vowed Friday to do everything to defeat Russia this year, as the first Western tanks arrived in Ukraine on the anniversary of Europe's largest conflict since World War II.

German-made Leopard tanks from Warsaw arrived in Ukraine as Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki visited Kyiv to send a "clear and measurable signal of further support".

More Polish tanks will be sent soon, Morawiecki said, also offering to train Ukrainian pilots to fly F16 jets, as Western allies underlined their unwavering support.

The United States ramped up sanctions on Moscow, this time targeting the country's banks, military industry and semiconductor access.

Russia remained defiant, with former president Dmitry Medvedev insisting that his country was ready to push its offensive "to the borders of Poland".

Tension was also building on Ukraine's border with Moldova. Moscow, claiming Kyiv is plotting to invade the breakaway region of Transnistria, has promised to respond. Moldova denied any threat from Ukraine.

As the war entered its second year, Zelensky pledged to do everything to defeat the invaders in the coming months.

"We endured. We were not defeated. And we will do everything to gain victory this year," Zelensky said in a statement.

Ukrainian Defence Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said his army was gearing up for a counter offensive.

"We are working hard to prepare and secure it," he said.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky attends a news conference on the first anniversary of Russian invasion of Ukraine, amid Russia's attack on Ukraine, in Kyiv, on February 24, 2023. Picture: Gleb Garanich/ REUTERS

'Spirit is strong'

A year ago to the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the world by sending troops across the border, a move seen as punishment for Kyiv's pivot to the West.

The year-long war has devastated swathes of Ukraine, displaced millions, turned Russia into a pariah in the West and, according to Western sources, caused more than 150,000 casualties on each side.

Protests against Moscow's aggression were planned across Europe to mark the invasion anniversary.

In Berlin, activists placed a bombed-out Russian tank in front of the Russian embassy.

Crowds fell silent for a minute from Tallinn to London while key buildings across Europe were draped or lit up in the blue and yellow colours of the Ukrainian flag.

A year ago, Russian troops sought to rapidly install a pro-Moscow regime in Ukraine but failed to conquer Kyiv and subsequently suffered defeats in north-eastern and southern Ukraine.

Since October, Russia has pummelled Ukraine's energy infrastructure, causing power shortages that have left millions in the cold and dark.

In a recent Ukrainian poll, nearly one in five said they had lost a loved one in the war.

But despite the daily trials, Ukrainians said they refused to be cowed.

In Bucha, where Russia has been accused of widespread atrocities, 64-year-old Galyna Gamulets recalled coming under fire from Russian troops for "more than two weeks".

She voiced pride in her nation and said that "we will succeed" in repelling the invaders.

"Thanks to aid from Western countries, we will win because our spirit is strong, said Yuriy Lototskyi, a 60-year-old electrician, also from Bucha.

"We just need help with the weapons".

Homage to war dead

From Kyiv's war-ravaged outskirts to near the eastern front lines, Ukrainians paid homage on Friday to the victims of Russia's year-long invasion.

In St Andrew's Church in Bucha, a town synonymous with alleged Russian atrocities, a priest called for prayers "for peace in Ukraine and its defenders".

"We have gathered to remember Russian crimes and terror," the priest told his congregation in the town north-west of Kyiv.

The church houses a small photo exhibition detailing the terrifying weeks when the town was under Russian occupation before it was retaken at the end of March 2022.

It was near the church that a mass grave was dug in haste to bury hundreds of victims before Russian forces withdrew.

"What we feel is sadness and a belief in victory," said Sergiy Zamostyan, a former professor.

"We stayed here for a month with my wife during the occupation. We didn't go anywhere. We saw all these terrible things,"

"At the cemetery there are 50 of our soldiers buried and 450 civilians that they (Russian soldiers) shot. Why? Tell me, why?" Zamostyan said.

He lived on Yablunska Street, he said, where AFP reporters saw the bodies of 20 people in civilian clothing lying in the street after Russian forces left.

"There was a man in the garden near us. We didn't know him. Just a man lying dead, we saw it with our own eyes," he said.

At the local cemetery in the town, which numbered around 30,000 people before the war, a second ceremony was held near freshly dug graves.

After Russian soldiers withdrew the fighting moved to southern and eastern Ukraine, but Bucha continues to pay a heavy price.

The burial places, covered in wreaths and Ukrainian flags, were for soldiers from the town killed in the last few months.

The most recent grave was that of Oleksiy, a 29-year-old soldier killed in January.

His mother, Tetiana, came back from Germany where she had sought refuge to bury her son.

"We are tired," she said, supported by a friend of Oleksiy's. "We've had enough of this war. It's tough, they don't want to leave us in peace."

Near the church, Galyna Gamuleta, 64, said she felt more confident now because "we have weapons, we have support, we have our own army".

In the first days of the attack on Bucha by Russian forces "we were here, under fire for two weeks.

"It was so frightening that I don't want to think about it. We had to go, leave our home. We couldn't even imagine that this could happen," she said.

Yuriy Lototskyi, a 60-year-old electrician, said he was relieved "about not being bombed any more". He hoped that "everything will get better, that we will be able to defend our territory and put Russia in its place".

"I think that, thanks to aid from Western countries, we will win because our spirit is strong. We just need help with the weapons," he said.

Some 700km south-east of Bucha, Kramatorsk was also burying its dead.

This city is close to the eastern front line and the town of Bakhmut, which Russian and Ukrainian forces have fought over for months.

Under a grey sky, 30-year-old Mykhailo Sikirin was buried in a coffin in the blue and yellow colours of Ukraine's flag.

A member of the national guard, he was killed during the bombardment of a trench last week in Shypylivka in the eastern region of Lugansk.

"He died for the independence and sovereignty of Ukraine," said the priest at the graveside. "This is the biggest love of any man."

Tearful mourners clutching wreaths and bouquets of flowers stood heads bowed as a lone soldier played the “Last Post” and three other comrades fired three single shots into the air.

"The actions of these soldiers are why we are here and safe and alive," said the priest, looking at Ukrainian flags flying high above 21 other graves in a new burial plot in the cemetery.

A symbolic illumination called ‘Ray of Memory’ is seen above national flags of Ukraine and the graves of Ukrainian soldiers who died in the war with Russia at Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv, on February 23, 2023, the eve of the first anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Picture: Yuriy Dyachyshyn / AFP