It was Ukraine’s “longest day,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, but the country’s dogged resistance a year on has proven that “every tomorrow is worth fighting for.”
On a day of commemorations, reflection and tears, the Ukrainian president’s defiant tone captured the national mood of resilience in the face of Europe’s biggest and deadliest war since World War II. Zelenskyy, who has himself become a symbol of Ukraine’s refusal to bow to Moscow, said Ukrainians proved themselves to be invincible during “a year of pain, sorrow, faith and unity.”
“We have been standing for exactly one year,” Zelenskyy said. Feb. 24, 2022, he said, was “the longest day of our lives. The hardest day of our modern history. We woke up early and haven’t fallen asleep since.”
Ukrainians wept at memorials for their tens of thousands of dead — a toll growing inexorably as fighting rages in eastern Ukraine in particular. Although Friday marked the anniversary of the full-scale invasion, combat between Russian-backed forces and Ukrainian troops has raged in the country’s east since 2014. New video from there shot with a drone for The Associated Press showed how the town of Marinka has been razed, along with others.
The killing continued: Russian shelling killed another three civilians and wounded 19 others in the most recent 24-hour spell, Ukraine’s presidential office said.
Around the country, Ukrainians looked back at a year that changed their lives and at the clouded future.
“I can sum up the last year in three words: Fear, love, hope,” Oleksandr Hranyk, a school director in Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, said.
Lining up in the capital, Kyiv, to buy anniversary commemorative postage stamps, Tetiana Klimkova described her heart as “falling and hurting.”
Still, “this day has become a symbol for me that we have survived for a whole year and will continue to live,” she said. “On this day, our children and grandchildren will remember how strong Ukrainians are mentally, physically, and spiritually.”
Although China on Friday called for a cease-fire, peace was nowhere in sight. Ukraine previously rejected a pause in the fighting for fear it would allow Russia to regroup militarily after bruising battlefield setbacks.
Zelenskyy gave qualified support to China’s apparent new interest in playing a diplomatic role, saying: “The fact that China started talking about Ukraine is not bad.”
“But the question is what follows the words,” he said during a wide-ranging news conference. “The question is in the steps and where they will lead to.”
A 12-point paper issued by China’s Foreign Ministry also urged an end to sanctions that aim to squeeze Russia’s economy.
That suggestion also looked like a non-starter, given that Western nations are working to further tighten the sanctions noose, not loosen it. Both the U.K. and U.S. imposed more sanctions Friday.
Ukraine is readying another military push to roll back Russian forces with the help of weaponry that has poured in from the West. NATO member Poland said Friday that it had delivered four advanced Leopard 2A4 tanks, making it the first country to hand the German-made armor to Ukraine.
The prime minister of Poland said on a visit to Kyiv that more Leopards are coming. Poland’s defense minister said contributions from other countries would help form Ukraine’s first Leopard battalion of 31 tanks.
“Ukraine is entering a new period, with a new task — to win,” Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov said.
“It will not be easy. But we will manage,” he added. “There is rage and a desire to avenge the fallen.”
Air raid alarms didn’t sound Friday in Kyiv, alleviating concerns that Russia might unleash another barrage of missiles to pile yet more sadness on Ukraine on the anniversary.
Still, the government recommended that schools move classes online, and office employees were asked to work from home. And even as they rode Kyiv’s subway to work, bought coffee and got busy, Ukrainians were unavoidably haunted by thoughts of loss and memories of when missiles struck, troops rolled across Ukraine’s borders and a refugee exodus began a year ago.
Back then, there were fears the country might fall within weeks. Zelenskyy referred to those dark moments in a video address.
“We fiercely fought for every day. And we endured the second day. And then, the third,” he said. “And we still know: Every tomorrow is worth fighting for.”
The anniversary was also poignant for the parents of children born exactly a year ago as bombs began killing and maiming.
“It’s a tragedy for the whole country, for every Ukrainian,” said Alina Mustafaieva, who gave birth to daughter Yeva that day.
“My family was lucky. We didn’t lose anyone or anything. But many did, and we have to share this loss together,” she said.
Tributes to Ukraine’s resilience took place in other countries. The Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Colosseum in Rome was among monuments illuminated in Ukraine’s colors — yellow and blue. In Berlin, a wrecked Russian tank was put on display.
Anti-war activists in Belgrade, Serbia, left a cake covered with red icing representing blood and a skull on top on a pavement near the Russian Embassy, which police stopped them from approaching.
In Russia, media and rights groups reported more police arrests of protesters who took to streets with antiwar slogans and flowers in various parts of the country.
The war’s one-year mark kept Ukraine’s president exceptionally busy. Zelenskyy kicked off the day with an early morning tweet that promised: “We know that 2023 will be the year of our victory!”
He followed that up with his video address, in which he also pledged not to abandon Ukrainians living under Russian occupation. “One way or another, we will liberate all our lands,” he vowed. He also addressed troops on a Kyiv square and handed out honors, including to the widow and daughter of a fallen soldier, telling them: “We will never forget.” In a Kyiv hospital, he decorated wounded fighters.
Unable to fly by plane from Ukraine while its airspace is closed because of the war, Zelenskyy did the next best thing at his news conference, spending nearly 2 1/2 hours with journalists from around the world. He thanked country after country for its support.
Emotional at times and playful at others, the president offered a glimpse of the people-skills he has used in corralling world leaders to back him and his country’s cause. He pushed again for more Western weaponry, including combat aircraft flown by the Royal Air Force in Britain that its government, led by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, isn’t for the moment willing to send.
“Where (are) our aircraft, Typhoon?” Zelenskyy said, switching to speaking in English. “Please ask my friend Rishi.”
The news conference was televised live, which was unusual. Generally during the war, Zelenskyy’s speeches and comments are broadcast with a delay until he has left a location, to protect him from a possible attack.
Zelenskyy argued that Ukraine cannot negotiate with Russia while its aggression continues. “Leave our territory. Stop bombing us,” he said. He also argued that Russian President Vladimir Putin should be held responsible for war crimes.
“This is not a child who broke something and can be forgiven,” he said.
Zelenskyy said one of his biggest disappointments in the invasion was seeing people who could have fought leave the country, a reference to officials who fled. He said a low point was when Russian atrocities were discovered in the recaptured town of Bucha near Kyiv.
“It was very scary,” he said. “We saw that the devil is not somewhere out there, but on Earth.”
A year on, casualty figures are horrific on both sides, although Moscow and Kyiv keep precise numbers under wraps. Western estimates suggest hundreds of thousands of killed and wounded.
In Kharkiv, Ukrainian serviceman Dmytro Kovalenko was buried Fridayin the city’s main cemetery for soldiers, which has added 15 new rows of graves this past year. Kovalenko was killed Monday in the fiercely contested eastern city of Bakhmut. Those saying final goodbyes included Andrii Zatsorenko, a friend who lay red carnations on the grave.
“I never thought I’d be giving him flowers,” Zatsorenko said.
“The war will not end soon,” he added. “We have a powerful enemy.”
—John Leicester, Hanna Arhirova And Samya Kullab, The Associated Press