Western leaders in Kyiv, G7 pledge support for Ukraine on war anniversary

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By Olena Harmash and Angelo Amante

KYIV (Reuters) - Heads of the Group of Seven major democracies on Saturday pledged to stand by war-weary Ukraine, and Western leaders traveled to Kyiv to show solidarity on the second anniversary of Russia's invasion, with no end in the sight to the fighting.

After initial successes in pushing back the Russian army, Ukraine has suffered recent setbacks on eastern battlefields, with its generals complaining of growing shortages of both arms and soldiers.

The G7 leaders on Saturday held a video conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on the anniversary of Russia's "special military operation," which ranks as the deadliest conflict in Europe since World War Two.

"As Ukraine enters the third year of this relentless war, its government and its people can count on the G7’s support for as long as it takes," the G7 leaders said in a statement.

The officials, who have been critical sources of military and financial aid to Kyiv, also vowed to continue targeting Russia's sources of revenue with sanctions.

Zelenskiy stressed the need to protect Ukrainian skies and strengthen its army. "We are counting on you," he said on the call, according to remarks published on his website.

Looking to dispel concerns the West is losing interest in the conflict, Italy's Giorgia Meloni and Canada's Justin Trudeau came to Kyiv early on Saturday with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo.

"The message I want to send today to ... all the Ukrainian people is that they are not alone," Meloni said as she signed a 10-year defence pact with Zelenskiy.

Trudeau signed a similar accord and pledged some $2.25 billion in financial and military support this year.

"We will stand with Ukraine with whatever it takes, for as long as it takes," Trudeau said.

Ordinary Ukrainians held services to commemorate the anniversary, laying flowers to honour their many dead, amid fears the war will last years longer as Russian President Vladimir Putin shows no sign of relenting.

"I'm a realist and understand that most likely the war will drag on for the next three or four years. I hope society will mobilise, I hope we'll be able to somehow defeat Russia," said Denys Symonovskiy, a Kyiv resident.

Outside Kyiv, the war continued unabated.

Russian drones attacked the port of Odesa for a second night running, hitting a residential building and 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 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.

HOLDING THE FRONT LINE

The Canadian and Italian security deals mirror similar pacts signed recently with France and Germany.

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.

In the G7 video call, Biden discussed Washington's continued support for Ukraine and steps the group can take to continue holding Russia accountable, a White House official said.

Seeking to maintain Western focus on Ukraine, Zelenskiy has warned 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 held across Ukraine including in the western city of Lviv, hundreds of kilometres from the fighting. Grieving women cried as a priest led a prayer in a cemetery festooned with blue and yellow Ukrainian flags, each marking the death of a soldier.

"The boys are holding the front line. We can only imagine what effort and price is paid for every peaceful day we have. I want to believe it is not all in vain. We have funerals every day," Evhenia Demchuk, a widow and mother of two, told Reuters.

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

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.

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.

(Reporting by Olena and Harmash Angelo Amante; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Andrew Osborn and Mike Collett-White; Writing by Mike Collett-White, Crispian Balmer and Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Ros Russell, William Mallard, Alex Richardson and Cynthia Osterman)