Ukraine's Zelenskiy fights back tears for dead on war anniversary

  • In packed programme, Zelenskiy sends messages of defiance
  • President holds back tears as he mourns dead, honours fighters
  • Polish prime minister, in Kyiv, says first Leopard tanks arrive

KYIV, Feb 24 (Reuters) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy marked the first anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion on Friday with a sombre message of defiance to his people and tears for the thousands of soldiers who have died.

On a cold, cloudy morning in Kyiv, the 45-year-old addressed members of Ukraine's armed forces and a small gathering of dignitaries in St Sophia Square, next to the green- and gold-domed cathedral that is a symbol of the city's resilience.

"I want to say to all of you who are fighting for Ukraine ... I am proud of you. We all, each and every one, are proud of you!"

As he has done throughout the war, Zelenskiy showed his feelings in the 30-minute ceremony, choking back emotion as he gave out Hero of Ukraine awards to troops - one of whom was on crutches - and to the mother of a soldier who had been killed.

As a band played the national anthem, there were tears in his eyes. Those present bowed their heads for a minute's silence.

Zelenskiy remains hugely popular in Ukraine, connecting with the population through daily messages filmed on a smartphone, and working to maintain international support in the form of financial aid and weapons.

In a packed programme, Zelenskiy gave state awards to military chaplains at Kyiv's historic Lavra monastery complex, visited wounded soldiers undergoing treatment in a hospital, and hosted Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

Poland allowed millions of refugees to cross from Ukraine early in the war and has been a close ally throughout. It announced on Friday that a first batch of Leopard tanks were already in Ukraine, as Zelenskiy pushes for more heavy weaponry.


The president's office released a special address of nearly 15 minutes titled "The Year of Invincibility" for the anniversary.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a news briefing in Kyiv, Ukraine, February 15, 2023. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

"A year ago on this day, from this same place, around seven in the morning, I addressed you with a brief statement, lasting only 67 seconds," he said, recalling the first day of what has become Europe's worst conflict since World War Two.

"'...We are strong. We are ready for anything. We will defeat everyone'. That's how it began on February 24, 2022. The longest day of our lives. The most difficult day in our recent history. We woke up early and haven't slept since."

Western military officials estimate casualties on both sides at more than 100,000 killed or wounded. Tens of thousands of civilians are also feared to have died, while millions have fled the threat of fighting.

"Almost everyone has at least one contact in their phone that will never pick up the phone again," Zelenskiy said. "He who will not respond to the SMS 'How are you?'. These ... simple words got a new meaning during the year of the war."

Ukrainian forces repelled Russia's advance on Kyiv early in 2022, and the conflict, which Moscow calls a "special military operation" to protect its security, has become one of grinding trench warfare in the east and south.

In recent months, Russia has also targeted Ukraine's power grid, causing blackouts and loss of water and heat for millions across the country.

With both countries showing no sign of backing down, the prospects of an end to the fighting any time soon look bleak.

Zelenskiy praised his people.

"We became one big army," he said. "We have become a team where someone finds, someone packs, someone brings, but everyone contributes.

"We withstand all threats, shelling, cluster bombs, cruise missiles, kamikaze drones, blackouts and cold. We are stronger than that," he said. "We were not defeated. And we will do everything to gain victory this year!"

Click on the link to listen to the Reuters World News Podcast Special anniversary episode: The Ukraine war

Writing by Mike Collett-White; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore and Kevin Liffey

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.