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Zelenskiy says 31,000 soldiers killed, giving figure for first time

<span>Lilia (centre right) and nine-year-old Matviy (centre), the wife and son of Andriy Katanenko, 39, who was killed in action near Avdiivka, mourn next to his coffin during a funeral ceremony in Bucha, north-west of Kyiv.</span><span>Photograph: Roman Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Lilia (centre right) and nine-year-old Matviy (centre), the wife and son of Andriy Katanenko, 39, who was killed in action near Avdiivka, mourn next to his coffin during a funeral ceremony in Bucha, north-west of Kyiv.Photograph: Roman Pilipey/AFP/Getty Images

Volodymyr Zelenskiy has given a figure for the number of Ukrainian battlefield deaths in the war with Russia for the first time, acknowledging that 31,000 soldiers have been killed and saying 2024 will be decisive for the outcome of the conflict.

Speaking in Kyiv a day after the two-year anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion, the Ukrainian president said he believed his country would win despite recent military setbacks. He conceded western weapons were in short supply and were crucial at a time when his troops were spectacularly outgunned.

They were running low on ammunition and at one point late last year were firing one shell for every twelve unleashed by the Russians, he said. The ratio was now 1:7. “They have a great superiority,” he admitted.

He refused to say how many Ukrainian service personnel had been wounded, saying such details might help Moscow, but that western estimates of the number of Ukrainian dead were too high. US officials have suggested 70,000 soldiers killed and 120,000 wounded.

“It’s not 300,000 or 150,000. Every casualty means a lot to us,” Zelenskiy said. He put the number of Russian dead at 180,000 and said Russian casualties were 500,000 including the wounded. He described Putin and Russia as a “ring of inhumans”. The Kremlin had murdered the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, he added.

House Republicans in Washington have been blocking a $61bn (£48bn) package of military and economic assistance to Kyiv for four months. Zelenskiy said he was hopeful the US Congress would soon pass the aid package, which includes badly needed replacements of the air defence missiles used to protect Kyiv and other cities.

“I’m sure there will be a positive decision. Otherwise it will leave me wondering what kind of a world we live in,” Zelenskiy said, stressing that almost all of the cash was being spent inside the US with arms producers. “We count on Congress’s support,” he added.

Zelenskiy described 2024 as “a turning point” and said the outcome of November’s US presidential election would be a key factor. If Donald Trump wins a second term in office, he is expected to pull the plug on aid to Kyiv. “This year will define the format of the ending of the war,” Zelenskiy said.

EU countries have been trying to boost diplomatic and military support for Ukraine. France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, will host European leaders for a conference on Monday. It will be a chance for participants to “reaffirm their determination” to defeat Russia’s aggressive war, the French presidency said.

The German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, will attend, as will the UK foreign secretary, David Cameron. Zelenskiy will beam in by video. He said on Sunday that he had asked Macron to provide Ukraine with Mirage fighter jets.

Kyiv also wants Berlin to supply its Taurus long-range cruise missile system to hit Russian targets away from the frontline. Scholz’s government has so far been reluctant to do so. Zelenskiy said he understood that Berlin was waiting for Washington to take the lead, as it had done previously with the delivery of battle tanks.

Zelenskiy declined to give details of the long-range Storm Shadow system that Britain donated last year. Asked by the Guardian whether he would welcome Keir Starmer as a future prime minister, he replied diplomatically: “That’s your decision. We have good relations [with the UK]. I spoke in parliament and met the government and opposition.”

He said there was currently no prospect of negotiations with Moscow. “Putin won’t call me. He doesn’t want to end the war,” he said. Zelenskiy’s peace formula envisages the withdrawal of Russian troops to Ukraine’s 1991 borders including the return of Crimea, reparations and a war crimes tribunal.

Related: Ukraine’s defence minister says half of western arms arrive later than promised

He said a peace summit would be held soon in Switzerland, followed by another meeting later on a “different continent”. Russia is unlikely to attend. The Kremlin says four Ukrainian provinces in the south and east – including some territory it does not control – are now Russian and that Ukraine has to accept “new realities”.

Russia began its counteroffensive in the east of the country last October, and its troops have been creeping forward ever since. Zelenskiy said his commanders often took the decision to abandon destroyed villages of “10 to 15 buildings” to save the lives of their men. Russia had so far not made a strategic breakthrough, he argued.

Zelenskiy seemed upbeat during the press conference. He spoke mostly in Ukrainian, occasionally addressing reporters in English. He denied his country was facing its “weakest moment” and said the first months of the invasion, when Russian forces threatened Kyiv, were worse.

He admitted March and April would be “difficult” and predicted Moscow would probably launch a major offensive in May. Given the right weapons, Ukraine could also counterattack. An additional 10 US Patriot systems would radically change the situation and allow Ukraine to defend its lengthy frontline, he said.

Zelenskiy refused to say why he recently fired his commander in chief, Valerii Zaluzhnyi. “It’s an internal matter,” he said. The change in military leadership was connected to a “new plan”. Several different versions had been prepared because of information leaks, he said.