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Emergency services dig out victims of a Russian air strike in Odesa, Ukraine. Picture: REUTERS/LIBKOS/GETTY IMAGES
Emergency services dig out victims of a Russian air strike in Odesa, Ukraine. Picture: REUTERS/LIBKOS/GETTY IMAGES

Vatican City/Kyiv— Pope Francis on Sunday called for a diplomatic solution to the war in Ukraine that would lead to a just and lasting peace, as the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion was marked a day earlier.

“So many victims, wounded, destruction, anguish and tears in a period that is becoming terribly long and whose end is not in sight. It is a war that not only devastates that region but also unleashes global waves of hate and fear,” Pope Francis said during his weekly Angelus message.

“I plead for that little bit of humanity to be found to create the conditions for a diplomatic solution in search of a just and lasting peace,” he said.

Heads of the Group of Seven (G7) major democracies on Saturday pledged to stand by war-weary Ukraine, and Western leaders travelled to Kyiv to show solidarity on the second anniversary of Russia’s invasion.

“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.

Ukraine leader Volodymyr Zelensky 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 that the West is losing interest in the conflict, Italy’s Giorgia Meloni and Canada’s Justin Trudeau arrived in 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 Zelensky.

Trudeau signed a similar accord and pledged about $2.25bn 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 that 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 had caused a blaze at a Russian steel plant, which a Russian official identified as one in Lipetsk, about 400km from Ukraine, which is responsible for about 18% of Russian output.

Front line

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

However, $61bn in aid promised by US 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, Zelensky 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 US, which he claims 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 are 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, said.

The initial shock of the invasion faded into familiarity and then fatigue as the world watched early Russian gains and a 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, though its costs have been huge as it seeks to navigate sanctions and a growing reliance on China.

Weakening position 

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 earlier in February 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 $500bn. About 2-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, Zelensky 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 buying by India and China, and the economy has been boosted by huge defence spending.

Russia has also ruthlessly punished dissent over the war. On February 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.


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