Western leaders rally around Kyiv to mark 2 years since Russia's full-scale invasion

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy welcomed Western leaders to Kyiv Saturday to mark the second anniversary of Russia's full-scale invasion, as Ukrainian forces run low on ammunition and foreign aid hangs in the balance.

Allies from the EU and the Group of Seven wealthy democracies rallied around Kyiv to express solidarity, with Zelenskyy joining a virtual G7 meeting Saturday and four world leaders traveling to Ukraine's war-weary capital.

“Two years ago, here, we met enemy landing forces with fire; two years later, we meet our friends and our partners here,” Zelenskyy said as he met the dignitaries at Hostomel airfield just outside of Kyiv, which Russian paratroopers unsuccessfully tried to seize in the first days of the war.

A somber mood hangs over Ukraine as the war against Russia enters its third year and Kyiv’s troops face mounting challenges on the frontline amid dwindling supplies and personnel challenges. Its troops recently withdrew from the strategic eastern city of Avdiivka, handing Moscow one of its biggest victories. And Russia still controls roughly a quarter of the country after Ukraine failed to make any major breakthroughs with its summertime counteroffensive.

Italian Premier Giorgia Meloni, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrived in Kyiv shortly after a Russian drone attack struck a residential building in the southern city of Odesa, killing at least one person. Three women also sustained severe burns in the attack Friday evening, regional Gov. Oleh Kiper wrote on his social media account. Rescue services combed through the rubble looking for survivors.

Hours later, Zelenskyy’s office announced the signing of 10-year bilateral security deals with Canada and Italy, with Ottawa committing to send Kyiv 3.02 billion Canadian dollars (close to 2.2 billion US dollars) in military and economic aid this year while Rome promised much-needed long-range weapons.

In a joint press conference, Meloni hailed the agreement with Kyiv and said, “We will continue to support Ukraine in what I have always deemed the just right of its people to defend itself.”

“Confusing the much-bandied about word ‘peace’ with ‘surrender,’ as some people do, is a hypocritical approach that we will never share,” she added.

Meloni also chaired a G7 videoconference from Kyiv that produced a joint statement Saturday reaffirming world leaders’ commitment to “supporting a comprehensive, just and lasting peace,” tightening sanctions on Russia and sending Ukraine military and economic aid for “as long as it takes.”

Von der Leyen vowed during the joint press conference that the bloc will stand with Ukraine “financially, economically, militarily, and most of all, morally, until (the) country is finally free.”

At the press conference, Zelenskyy highlighted the urgency of timely arms deliveries, while pledging that Kyiv would not use weapons from allied countries to strike Russian territory. His words reflected an increasingly tense battlefield situation in eastern Ukraine, where Kyiv's troops are trying to hold back Russian advances despite a escalating ammunition shortage.

On the frontline in the eastern Donetsk region, Ukrainian soldiers pleaded for shells.

“When the enemy comes in, a lot of our guys die. ... We are sitting here with nothing," said Volodymyr, 27, a senior officer in an artillery battery.

“In order to protect our infantry ... we need a high number of shells, which we do not have now,” said Oleksandr, 45, a commander of an artillery unit. The two officers gave only their first names, citing security concerns.

About 100 people gathered outside St. Sophia’s Cathedral in central Kyiv Saturday, calling for the release of Azov Brigade members who were taken captive by Russia after defending the southern city of Mariupol.

Olena Petrivna, the mother of a member taken by Russian forces questioned why Russia invaded Ukraine, saying that before the war people "lived our own lives, not bothering anyone, raising our children".

The Russians, she said, tried to conquer Ukraine to teach them what to say and what language to speak but, she added, "We don’t need them. We have one destiny – victory. We must win.”

The war has also come to Russia. Drones hit a steel plant in the Lipetsk region in southern Russia Saturday, causing a large fire, regional Gov. Igor Artamonov said, adding there are no casualties. Independent Russian media said the Novolipetsk Metallurgical Plant is the largest steel plant in Russia. Videos shared on Russian social media showed several fires burning at the plant, and an explosion could be heard.

Independent Russian news outlet Mediazona said Saturday that about 75,000 Russian men died in 2022 and 2023 fighting in the war.

A joint investigation published by Mediazona and Meduza, another independent Russian news site, indicates that the rate of Russia's losses in Ukraine is not slowing and that Moscow is losing about 120 men a day. Based on a statistical analysis of the recorded deaths of soldiers compared with a Russian inheritance database, the journalists said about 83,000 soldiers are likely to have died in the two years of fighting.

Solidarity demonstrations with Ukraine were held across Europe, including in London, Berlin and Stockholm.

In Belgrade, hundreds marched through the city center carrying Ukrainian flags. Though it has condemned the invasion of Ukraine, Serbia has not joined Western sanctions against Russia and maintains friendly relations with Moscow.

Despite a heavy crackdown on dissent, some Russians marked the anniversary by laying flowers at Moscow monuments or staging one-person protests. According to OVD-Info, a Russian rights group that tracks political arrests and provides legal aid, at least six people were detained across Russia on Saturday for holding up antiwar signs, bearing flowers in Ukraine’s national colors or otherwise expressing support for Kyiv. Four more were arrested in Moscow at a demonstration calling for the return of mobilized Russian soldiers from Ukraine.”

Meanwhile, millions of Ukrainians continue to live in precarious circumstances, and many others face constant struggles under Russian occupation. Most are waiting for a Ukrainian liberation that hasn't come.

Olena Zelenska, the president's wife, said Saturday that more than 2 million Ukrainian children have left the country since the war began and that at least 528 have been killed. “The war started by Russia deliberately targets children,” she said.

Britain has pledged an additional 8.5 million pounds ($10.8 million) of humanitarian aid to Ukraine, bolstering efforts to provide medical care, food and basic services to residents.

About 14.6 million people, or 40% of Ukraine’s population, need assistance, with many left homeless or without adequate access to food, water and electricity, Britain’s Foreign Office said in announcing the aid.

In the U.S. Congress, Republicans have stalled $60 billion in military aid for Kyiv, desperately needed in the short term. The EU recently approved a 50 billion-euro (about $54 billion) aid package for Ukraine meant to support Ukraine's economy, despite resistance from Hungary.

___

Associated Press writers Alex Babenko in the Donetsk region of Ukraine and Vasilisa Stepanenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, contributed to this report.