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Ukrainians have not lost optimism after one year of war, ambassador tells vigil

Ukrainians have not lost optimism after one year of war, the country’s UK ambassador has said.

Vadym Prystaiko, speaking at a vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion in Trafalgar Square, central London, insisted Ukrainian people are “confidently looking at our future”.

The vigil, jointly co-ordinated by the US and Ukraine embassies in London, saw not only Mr Prystaiko take the stage but also Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, US ambassador Jane Hartley and academy award-winning actress Dame Helen Mirren, in between Ukrainian musical performances.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Dame Helen Mirren recites a poem at the vigil (James Manning/PA)

Mr Putin’s original plan of taking the country in only a matter of days failed, with a vast amount of the current fighting centring around the battle for the east of Ukraine.

Addressing the crowd, Mr Prystaiko said: “After a year of…war we are not losing our optimism.”

Speaking to the PA news agency, he insisted Ukraine is “stubborn” and “will be able to go through this”.

He said he visited Ukrainian soldiers earlier on Thursday who are “strong”.

Asked if he agreed with Mr Wallace that the war could rage for at least another year, the ambassador said that if Ukraine continues to receive help, “we will be able to finish much earlier”.

Responding to Mr Putin’s comments on Tuesday blaming the West for starting the war in Ukraine, Mr Prystaiko said: “This matter is a lesson of history, how he performed it.”

He added: “I was watching the faces of Russians within the elite, so-called, sitting listening to him. Most of these people by their eyes, by their looks, they understand that they are in deep, deep, deep trouble. They are fighting with the world for a year. They are doing very badly. The economy is going down. They can’t perform on the battlefield and they are destroying their relations.”

The ambassador continued: “But the most tragic thing is he (Putin) is not turning away so we have to show him that the resolve is also on this side and we are going to fight.”

He told PA: “Yes the losses are huge – sometimes it’s people’s lives, sometimes it’s cities, but actually we are going through this war and will be victorious all together.”

The UK has been a prominent supporter of Ukraine’s military efforts to push back the Kremlin’s troops, with Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announcing earlier this year that Britain would be the first country to supply tanks to its armed forces.

The Defence Secretary has been seen to be lobbying Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in recent weeks to increase Ministry of Defence spending in the face of Russia’s aggression and growing Chinese influence on the world stage.

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Ben Wallace speaking at the vigil (James Manning/PA)

Mr Wallace told the vigil’s crowd that they should be “incredibly proud” of the bravery of Ukrainian people who have stood against “this illegal war”.

He announced that Britain trained 10,000 Ukrainian soldiers last year and will train another 20,000.

He went on: “Like Ukraine, Britain remembers what it was like to stand alone against overwhelming odds when many people thought we didn’t have a chance in 1939.”

Calling Ukrainian soldiers the “bravest of the brave”, he added: “You not only showed Russia, you showed us all when you stand up for human rights and your country, anything is possible.”

The latest Government figures show that as of February 20, 163,500 people had arrived in the UK under the Ukraine schemes.

Of these, 47,800 arrived via the Ukraine Family Scheme and 115,800 via the Ukraine Sponsorship Scheme.

Ms Hartley, in her speech at the vigil, said Mr Putin was “blinded by arrogance”.

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Jane Hartley addressing the crowd (James Manning/PA)

As co-host of the event, she told PA: “We thought it was very important not just to show Ukraine that we in the UK are steadfast in our support for them but also to show Putin that he made a huge mistake when he underestimated the bravery of the Ukraine people, of the resolve of the West.”

Taras Topolia, vocalist for Ukrainian musical group Antytila, said he and some of his bandmates joined the front line on the first day of the war, becoming paramedics.

After performing on stage at the vigil, he told PA his group now run a charity foundation which raises money, buys and delivers equipment to soldiers and supports children whose fathers were killed in the war.

Asked what his message to the world would be, he said: “We will get this victory. Continue to support Ukraine and all together we will get this victory and establish the right world order – with humanity, with right values and principles. We will not let Russians to beat us on the battlefield. We will fight to the end.”

Russian invasion of Ukraine
The crowd in Trafalgar Square (James Manning/PA)

Iryna Estevez, who grew up in Ukraine but has lived in London for 22 years, labelled Russia as “terrorists”.

“I’m not afraid to say they are the biggest terrorists in the world,” she told PA.

Ms Estevez – whose parents, grandparents, brother, three nephews, cousins and university friends all still live in Ukraine – attended the vigil to commemorate “all the thousands of people, innocent people, children, elderly people, who died in those dreadful 365 days”.

“It’s not just a year,” she said.

“Every day had casualties, every life, every lost life, it’s not just a number it’s a story. Every lost life, it’s a family, it’s a personality that had a future, that had dreams, that were planning to grow up into adults, that were planning to finish university, that were planning to get married and have families.”

Diana Zhuk, who moved from Odessa to Paris when the war began – and who has arrived in London in the last few days, told PA she “still can’t believe” the conflict has stretched for one year.

“I hope it won’t continue longer and it won’t be two years,” she added, wrapped in a Ukrainian flag in Trafalgar Square.

“I really worry about my family in Ukraine every day.

“I wish it will be peace in the whole world.”