'We will definitely win!': Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits legendary site of Ukraine defiance as he marks 500 days of war

8 July 2023, 12:02 | Updated: 8 July 2023, 13:34

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Picture: Twitter

By Kit Heren

Volodymyr Zelenskyy has visited an island where Ukrainian troops are said to have stood up to the Russian invaders in a legendary display of defiance early on in the war, as the conflict passes 500 days.

The Ukrainian president hailed his country's troops from Snake Island, in the Black Sea off the city of Odessa, which came under heavy bombardment early in the war.

Mr Zelenskyy thanked the Ukrainian soldiers who fought on 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," Mr Zelensky said. "Thank you to everyone who fights for Ukraine!"

Russian forces took control of the tiny stony 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.

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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 f*** yourself."

Ukraine has celebrated the story with patriotic fervour, issuing a postage stamp in commemoration.

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.

Snake Island, Ukraine
Snake Island, Ukraine. Picture: Alamy

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," Mr Zelensky said. "We will definitely win!"

Intense battles continued to rage on Saturday in the country's east and south as Ukrainian forces pressed their attacks against multi-layered Russian defences in the initial stages of their counter-offensive.

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 on Saturday.

Volodymyr Zelenskyy
Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Picture: Getty

The UK Ministry of Defence said in its latest intelligence update that the eastern town of Bakhmut that 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 insisted that it has successfully fended off Ukrainian attacks in various sections of the front and inflicted heavy losses on the attackers.

The Russian Defence Ministry on Saturday released footage of Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu visiting firing ranges where volunteer soldiers are being trained.

A woman clears debris from a damaged apartment following a Russian missile attack in Lviv in western Ukraine on Thursday
A woman clears debris from a damaged apartment following a Russian missile attack in Lviv in western Ukraine on Thursday. Picture: Alamy

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 modernising Ukraine's armed forces, create a high-level forum for consultations and reaffirm that it will join their alliance one day.

Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan expressed support early on Saturday for Ukraine joining Nato, saying it deserves to join the alliance. He made the comment at a joint news conference with Mr 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.

Joe Biden
Joe Biden. Picture: Getty

It comes as the US government announced plans on Friday to send controversial cluster munitions to Ukraine as the war with Russia wages on.

Ukraine has been asking the US for the weapons - which are banned in more than 100 countries - for some time as it suffers from a shortage of ammunition. Russia has already been using them in the war.

Rishi Sunak said on Saturday that the UK - one of the signatories to the ban - "discourages" the use of cluster munitions.

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