KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the 500th day of the war Saturday by hailing the country’s soldiers in a video from a Black Sea island that became the symbol of Ukraine’s resilience in the face of the Russian invasion.
Speaking from Snake Island, Zelensky honored the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the island and all other defenders of the country, saying that reclaiming control of the island “is a great proof that Ukraine will regain every bit of its territory.”
“I want to thank – from here, from this place of victory – each of our soldiers for these 500 days,” Zelensky said. “Thank you to everyone who fights for Ukraine!”
Russian forces took control of the tiny stone island on February 24, 2022, the day Moscow launched its invasion, in the apparent hope of using it as a staging ground for an assault on Odesa, Ukraine’s biggest port and the headquarters of its navy.
The island took on legendary significance for Ukraine’s resistance to the Russian invasion, when Ukrainian troops there reportedly received a demand from a Russian warship to surrender or be bombed. The answer supposedly came back, “Go fuck yourself.”
Ukraine has celebrated the story with patriotic fervor, issuing a postage stamp in commemoration.
500 days of the full-scale war.
Snake Island. The free island of free Ukraine.
I am grateful to everyone who fought here against the occupiers. We commemorated the heroes who gave their lives in this battle – one of the most important during the full-scale war.
Glory to… pic.twitter.com/RODccfWkWm
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) July 8, 2023
The island’s Ukrainian defenders were captured by the Russians but later freed as part of a prisoner exchange. After the island was taken, the Ukrainian military heavily bombarded the small Russian garrison there, forcing the Russians to pull back on June 30, 2022. The Russian retreat reduced the threat of a seaborne Russian attack on Odesa and helped pave the way for a deal to resume Ukrainian grain exports.
“Let the freedom that all our heroes of different times wanted for Ukraine and that must be won right now be a tribute to all those who gave their lives for Ukraine,” Zelensky said. “We will definitely win!”
Intense battles continued to rage Saturday in the country’s east and south as Ukrainian forces pressed their attacks against multi-layered Russian defenses in the initial stages of their counteroffensive.
Pavlo Kyrylenko, the governor of the eastern Donetsk region, said that a Russian rocket strike on the city of Lyman killed six civilians and wounded another five early Saturday.
The UK Ministry of Defense said in its latest intelligence update that the eastern town of Bakhmut, which was captured by the Russians in May, has seen some of the most intense fighting along the front during the last week.
It said that Ukrainian forces have made steady gains to both the north and south of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, noting that “Russian defenders are highly likely struggling with poor morale, a mix of disparate units and a limited ability to find and strike Ukrainian artillery.”
The Russian military has insisted that it has successfully fended off Ukrainian attacks in various sections of the front and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers.
The Russian Defense Ministry on Saturday released footage of Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visiting firing ranges where volunteer soldiers are being trained.
Pitched battles along the front line are raging as NATO leaders are set to meet in Vilnius for a two-day summit next week to offer more help in modernizing Ukraine’s armed forces, create a new high-level forum for consultations and reaffirm that it will join their alliance one day.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed support early Saturday for Ukraine joining NATO, saying it deserves to join the alliance. He made the comment at a joint news conference with Zelensky, who visited Turkey as part of a European tour to rally support for Ukraine’s entry into the military alliance after the war with Russia comes to an end.
Ahead of the NATO summit, the US has announced that it will provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, a move that US President Joe Biden described as a “difficult decision.” Two-thirds of NATO members have banned the munitions which have a track record of causing many civilian casualties, but the US sees their delivery as a way to help bolster Ukraine’s offensive and push through Russian front lines.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov hailed the US move, saying that the delivery of cluster munitions will help the country de-occupy its territories while saving the lives of the Ukrainian soldiers.
Reznikov vowed that Ukraine will use the munitions only for the de-occupation of its territory and will not fire them at Russia’s proper territory. Reznikov also noted that the Ukrainian military will not use cluster munitions in urban areas to avoid hurting civilians, adding that they will be put to action in the field to “break through the enemy defense lines with minimum risk for the lives of our soldiers.”