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European leaders in Kyiv pledge to back Ukraine on war anniversary

4 min

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed that Europe would back Ukraine until it was "finally free" as she and three other Western leaders arrived in Kyiv to show solidarity on the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Military Intelligence chief Kyrylo Budanov shake hands before an award ceremony at an airfield in the town of Hostomel, on the second anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, outside of Kyiv, February 24, 2024. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen vowed that Europe would back Ukraine until it was "finally free" as she and three other Western leaders arrived in Kyiv to show solidarity on the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion.

The visit by von der Leyen and the prime ministers of Italy, Canada and Belgium - Giorgia Meloni, Justin Trudeau and Alexander De Croo - was a show of support as Ukraine suffers shortages of military supplies that are hurting it on the battlefield as Moscow grinds out territorial gains.

"More than ever, we stand firmly by Ukraine. Financially, economically, militarily, morally. Until the country is finally free," Von der Leyen, who came with the others on an overnight train from neighbouring Poland, wrote on the social media platform X.

The leaders visited Hostomel airport, site of a ferocious battle at the start of the invasion as Russia tried to fly in paratroopers to seize the capital Kyiv a few kilometres away.

"We are here today to say thanks to these men and women who on February 24 two years ago did not run away and instead fought," Meloni said. "This place is a symbol of Moscow's failures, a symbol of Ukrainian pride."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy embraced the Western leaders and delivered a televised speech against a backdrop of wrecked aircraft.

"Two years ago we met enemy troopers here with fire, and two years later, we are meeting our friends, our partners, here," he said.

"Any normal person wants the war to end. But none of us will allow our Ukraine to end," he added. "The word 'independent' will always stand next to the word 'Ukraine' in future history."

Outside Kyiv, the war continued unabated.

Russian drones attacked the port of Odesa for a second night running, hitting a residential building, killing one person, the regional governor said. In Dnipro, a Russian drone hit an apartment building and a rescue operation uncovered two dead.

Meanwhile, a source in Kyiv said Ukrainian drones had caused a blaze at a Russian steel plant, which a Russian official identified as one in Lipetsk, some 400 km (250 miles) from Ukraine, that is responsible for about 18% of Russian output.

Meloni and Trudeau were expected to sign security pacts with Zelenskiy during their brief stay, in line with deals recently agreed with France and Germany worth billions of dollars.

US AID STILL BLOCKED

However, $61 billion in aid promised by U.S. President Joe Biden is being blocked by Republicans in Congress, casting a long shadow over Kyiv's hopes of pushing back the much larger, better supplied Russian military.

Biden was due to take part in a video conference of fellow leaders of the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies on Saturday, with Zelenskiy invited to join in.

The West sees the invasion as an unjustified act of aggression that must be repelled and Italy, current chair of the G7, said it was vital to challenge perceptions that it was wearying of the conflict and Russia was winning.

When Russian tanks and infantry streamed across the border before dawn on Feb. 24, 2022, Ukraine's 40 million people defied expectations by slowing and stopping their advance.

But as the war enters its third year, setbacks in the east have left Ukraine's army looking vulnerable.

Seeking to maintain Western focus on Ukraine, Zelenskiy has warned that Russian President Vladimir Putin may not stop at Ukraine's borders if he emerges victorious.

Putin dismisses such claims, and casts the war as a wider struggle with the United States, which he says aims to dismantle Russia.

Anniversary events were planned across Ukraine, including a service to commemorate those who died in Bucha, north of Kyiv - scene of some of the worst alleged war crimes of the conflict.

Ukraine said on Friday it had launched investigations into more than 122,000 suspected war crimes in the last two years, which Russia denies carrying out.

The initial shock of the invasion has gradually faded into familiarity and then fatigue, as the world watched initial Russian gains and a stunning Ukrainian counteroffensive in late 2022 slow into grinding trench warfare.

In scenes reminiscent of the battlefields of World War One, soldiers under heavy artillery fire are dying in their thousands, sometimes for a few kilometres of land.

Both sides have developed huge and sophisticated fleets of air and sea drones for surveillance and attack.

Russia, with a much bigger population to replenish the army's ranks and a larger military budget, might favour a drawn-out war, although its costs have been huge as it seeks to navigate sanctions and a growing reliance on China.

UKRAINE'S POSITION GROWS PRECARIOUS

Ukraine's position is more precarious. Villages, towns and cities have been razed, troops are exhausted, and Russian missiles and drone strikes rain down almost daily.

Russia this month registered its biggest victory in nine months, capturing the eastern town of Avdiivka and ending months of deadly urban combat.

Yet Zelenskiy remained defiant.

"I am convinced that victory awaits us," he told diplomats in Kyiv this week in an emotional address. "In particular, thanks to unity and your support."

A recent World Bank study said rebuilding Ukraine's economy could cost nearly $500 billion. Two million housing units have been damaged or destroyed, and nearly 6 million people remain abroad after fleeing the invasion.

In addition to seeking money and weaponry, Zelenskiy is promoting legislation allowing Ukraine to mobilise up to half a million more troops - a target some economists say could paralyse the economy.

Russia's finances have so far proved resilient to unprecedented sanctions. While natural gas exports have slumped, oil sales have held up, thanks largely to Indian and Chinese buying, and the economy has been boosted by massive defence spending.

Russia has also ruthlessly punished dissent over the war. On Feb. 16, Putin's most formidable domestic opponent, Alexei Navalny, died suddenly of unexplained causes in an Arctic penal colony where he was serving terms totalling more than 30 years.

By Olena Harmash and Angelo Amante

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