Joy is gone but hope remains: Canadian ambassador to Ukraine on invasion anniversary

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's capital city was eerily quiet Friday as people in Kyiv marked the start of the second year of war.

In a city of millions, the sidewalks were mostly empty and little fanfare was paid to the first anniversary of Russia's invasion — partially out of anxiety the terror would continue.

Outside St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, Inna Voloshyna laid flowers.

"Today it was hard for me, actually, to start the day," said Voloshyna.

She pointed to photos of Ukrainian soldiers around the perimeter of the church, a tribute to those who have been killed since the invasion.

"I know families of some of these people," she said.

One year ago, missile strikes rained down on Ukraine and Russian tanks rolled toward Kyiv, marking the beginning of a dark and deadly year.

Many people did not believe it would be possible for Ukraine to defend itself for so long against the Russian invasion, she said.

"So from one point we are doing what nobody believed, but from another point it is so huge a price," she said, glancing at the wall of photos.

Though Voloshyna felt she should pay her respects Friday, she maintained that the anniversary is not significant.

"The significance would be when we would win completely," she said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was defiant in the face of the anniversary.

"Today we have been standing for exactly one year and we still know: every tomorrow is worth fighting for," he said in a televised address to Ukrainians on Friday.

They survived a "furious year of invincibility," he said, telling his people they would have their victory.

"We can see it, even in the dark, despite the constant massive missile attacks and power outages," he said. "We see the light of this victory."

Larisa Galadza, Canada's ambassador to Ukraine, said most Ukrainians are not seeing the day as a chance for reflection. They are still living the reality.

"There is no space for reflection," Galadza said from a boardroom in the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv on Friday.

"I find that for myself as well."

Before the Russian army began its invasion, Galadza and her staff retreated 550 kilometres west to the city of Lviv, before fleeing to Poland on Feb. 24, 2022.

Some feared the city would fall to Russian occupation, but Ukrainian flags still fly over Maidan, a city square in the heart of Kyiv that represents independence.

Like many in Ukraine, Galadza said she woke Friday with a sense of apprehension about whether the terror of last year would be repeated.

A spokesperson for the Ukrainian air force said earlier this week the military expected several waves of Russian attacks to mark the occasion, but air raid sirens in Kyiv remained silent.

Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly visited the city last week in a show of solidarity. She pledged $21 million for projects to support Ukraine’s "security, accountability, and stabilization efforts," including buying equipment to help de-mine liberated territories and support victims of conflict-related sexual assaults.

On Friday, she announced another $32 million aimed at similar projects, as well as specialized equipment to mitigate potential chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear incidents.

Galadza said the mood in Kyiv is sombre.

"The joy is gone. The hope is there," she said. "The determination is there. It's palpable."

All over the city, much of the damage caused by missile strikes has been repaired. Patches of new asphalt are the only evidence of the damage left behind in some places.

Outside the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, burnt-out Russian tanks decorated the square, adorned with blue and yellow ribbons to represent the Ukrainian flag and tagged with messages of resistance.

People are also feeling gratitude, Galadza said.

She attended a ceremony in Sofia Square on Friday, where Zelenskyy paid tribute to servicemen and citizens who supported the war effort. Some awards were accepted by the parents of the fallen soldiers, she said.

"That was very meaningful to do that in the middle of Kyiv — the Kyiv that Russia thought they were going to take in a matter of hours," she said. "It was powerful."

Later, at a press conference with international media on Friday, Zelenskyy became emotional as he urged Moscow to leave Ukraine.

"Our right to live on our land needs to be respected," he said through a translator.

"Stop shelling us. Stop killing civilians. Stop destroying our infrastructure, energy sector, potable water. Stop airstrikes on the city. Stop killing dogs, cats, animals. Stop burning the forest."

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said Canada will stand by Ukraine's side for as long as it takes to finish the war. He announced Friday that Canada is sending more weapons to Ukraine, including four more battle tanks.

Galadza said the support will likely extend beyond that to include the rebuilding effort as well.

Ukraine liberated five regions last spring, and reconstructing those communities is top of mind for the government, she said.

"That's how they're going to bring people back into their homes, bring Ukrainians back to the country, and it's going to be an international effort," she said.

"We're going to do this together."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 24, 2023.

Laura Osman, The Canadian Press