by Thibault Marchand with Phil Hazlewood in Kramatorsk
KYIV, UKRAINE — Ukrainians will hold ceremonies across their war-ravaged country Friday on the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, with President Volodymyr Zelensky to assure them of victory even as they face the threat of new missile strikes.
A year ago to the day, Russian President Vladimir Putin stunned the world by sending troops across the border, in a move seen as punishment for Kyiv’s pivot to the West.
On Friday, Zelensky will hold a news conference to mark the bitter milestone, while commemorations will be held across the country.
One of the ceremonies will be held in the town of Bucha, which has become a byword for Russian atrocities, while priests will lead prayers for peace.
“Evil is still around, and the battle continues,” Zelensky said late Thursday.
“But we know for sure that it will end with our victory,” he added.
Ukrainian intelligence has warned of possible new attacks from Moscow, including missile strikes.
Western nations, which have supported Kyiv financially and militarily throughout the war, were also set to commemorate the anniversary of what has become the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.
The United States and its G7 allies planned to unveil a fresh package of sanctions, while US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Washington would send Ukraine a new military aid package worth $2 billion.
On Thursday, the United Nations voted overwhelmingly to demand Russia “immediately” and “unconditionally” withdraw its troops from Ukraine.
‘America stands with Ukraine’
This week, US President Joe Biden surprised the world by visiting war-time Kyiv to pledge new arms deliveries.
“One year later, Kyiv stands. Ukraine stands,” he tweeted. “Democracy stands. America — and the world — stands with Ukraine.”
In Paris, the Eiffel Tower will be illuminated in the yellow and blue colours of the Ukrainian flag, while in London, MPs and diplomats will pray at a Ukrainian Catholic cathedral.
In Germany, Chancellor Olaf Scholz was set to speak to reporters, while activists plan to put a Russian tank in front of Moscow’s embassy in Berlin.
Beijing, which has sought to position itself as a neutral party while maintaining close ties with Russia, called on both countries to hold peace talks as soon as possible in a 12-point paper published Friday.
“All parties should support Russia and Ukraine in working in the same direction and resuming direct dialogue as quickly as possible,” said the paper released on the foreign ministry’s website.
China also stressed its opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, as well as the threat of deploying them.
“Nuclear weapons must not be used and nuclear wars must not be fought. The threat of use of nuclear weapons should be opposed,” it said.
‘The most difficult year’
The year-long war has devastated swathes of Ukraine, displaced millions, turned Russia into a pariah in the West and, according to Western sources, has caused more than 150,000 casualties on each side.
According to a recent Ukrainian poll, 17 percent of respondents said they had lost a loved one in the war.
The study by the sociological group Rating also showed a huge boost in confidence towards Zelensky, the 45-year-old former comic turned war-time leader.
Around 95 per cent of Ukrainians say they are confident of Kyiv’s victory.
“This has been the most difficult year of my life and that of all Ukrainians,” Diana Shestakova, 23, said in Kyiv.
“I am sure that we will be victorious, but we don’t know how long we will have to wait.”
‘God is helping us’
On the frontline in eastern Ukraine, Kyiv’s troops pledged to drive out Moscow’s forces.
“God is helping us. Nobody thought that Ukraine would hold,” said a soldier who goes by the call sign “Cook”.
“I know that miracles happen,” said the soldier from the 95th Separate Air Assault Brigade in the eastern region of Donetsk.
The Russian assault was launched with the goal of a rapid conquest leading to capitulation and the installation of a pro-Moscow regime.
But Russian forces failed to conquer Kyiv and have since suffered defeats in northeastern and southern Ukraine.
Since October, Russia has pummelled Ukraine’s energy infrastructure, leading to power shortages that have left millions in the cold and dark.
Despite military setbacks and unprecedented Western sanctions, Putin, 70, has refused to back down, accusing the West of supporting neo-Nazi forces and claiming Russia’s survival was at stake.
In his state of the nation address Tuesday, Putin vowed Moscow would keep fighting in Ukraine and suspended its participation in the last remaining arms control treaty between Russia and the United States.
“We are protecting people’s lives, our native home,” Putin said. “And the goal of the West is endless power.”
The Kremlin has been putting society on a war footing, with independent media banned and prominent critics jailed or pushed out of the country.
Putin’s assault on Ukraine and mobilisation of reservists have sparked what might be Russia’s largest mass exodus since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917.
But with television propaganda in overdrive, many Russians have rallied behind Putin despite economic trouble and multiplying casualties.
“The country is really changing for the better,” said Lyubov Yudina, a 48-year-old security guard.
Others are dejected.
“I don’t see any future now,” said Ruslan Melnikov, a 28-year-old teacher.