On Ukraine War’s 500th Day, Russia Strikes and Zelensky Shows Defiance


Russian forces launched a deadly strike in eastern Ukraine on Saturday as President Volodymyr Zelensky marked the 500th day of the war with a show of defiance, sharing a video of himself visiting a Black Sea island that has become a potent symbol of his country’s resistance to the invasion.

In the kind of attack that has become painfully familiar, at least seven civilians were killed and 13 others were injured when Russian forces shelled the city center of Lyman in the eastern Donetsk region at around 10 a.m., Ukraine’s Interior Ministry said in a statement on the Telegram messaging app.

At the scene, bloodstains, shattered glass and an overturned motorcycle marked the site of the strike.

The midmorning assault was a grim reminder of the toll taken on Ukraine by 500 days of war. Mr. Zelensky paid tribute on Saturday to all those who have lost their lives, using the backdrop of Snake Island to underscore Ukrainian resolve.

At the start of the war in February, an audio recording captured Ukrainian border guards on the island, 20 miles off the coast of Odesa. Defying an order by a Russian warship to surrender, the guards responded with a memorable burst of profanity that became a rallying cry immortalized on stamps and on billboards around the country.

In the video posted on Saturday, Mr. Zelensky honored the “heroes” who fought for Snake Island, calling the battle that ultimately forced Russian troops to withdraw last June “one of the most important” since the full-scale invasion.

“Although this is a small piece of land in the middle of our Black Sea, it is a great proof that Ukraine will regain every bit of its territory,” Mr. Zelensky said in the video, which showed him clambering off a boat and across a rocky landscape to lay blue and yellow flowers at a memorial.

It was not immediately clear when the video was filmed: The Ukrainian leader was in Turkey on Saturday, a trip described as an effort to drum up support for his country’s bid to join NATO.

But in keeping with the theme of defiance, he left Istanbul on Saturday with something of immense personal and symbolic value to many Ukrainians. Mr. Zelensky said on Twitter that five commanders from the country’s Azov Battalion, who defended the port city of Mariupol during an 80-day Russian siege, would be returning with him.

The fighters fierce resistance from inside a sprawling steel plant made them national celebrities but also a valuable prize for the Kremlin when they surrendered to Russian forces in May. They were later sent to Turkey in a prisoner swap negotiated by Ankara. Mr. Zelensky had repeatedly pledged to secure their release along with all Ukrainian prisoners of war.

“We are returning home from Turkey and bringing our heroes home,” he wrote on Twitter on Saturday, sharing a video that showed him embracing the five men, who were later shown a phone with the footage from Snake Island.

The move was a symbolic climax to a week of diplomatic meetings that ended in Turkey, part of a tour of NATO countries ahead of the alliance’s summit next week.

The war has reshaped Ukraine’s relationship with the world, adding momentum to its bid to join NATO and turning Mr. Zelensky into a diplomatic juggernaut. He has used the global attention to help Ukraine push for billions in military aid to fend off Russian invaders, and his country, armed with Western-supplied weapons, is in the early stages of an intensely scrutinized campaign to take back occupied territory.

Kyiv views membership in NATO as the ultimate guarantee of its security; its application in September to join the alliance was made against the backdrop of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

While Mr. Zelensky has acknowledged that Ukraine won’t be joining NATO anytime soon, given that such a move would force the mutual-defense alliance into direct military conflict with Russia, he has repeatedly urged its members to set out a timetable for accession. In recent months, he has expressed hopes that next week’s summit in Vilnius, Lithuania, could provide clarity.

With days to go before the meeting, Mr. Zelensky set out on a diplomatic offensive to press his case. He traveled to Bulgaria and the Czech Republic on Thursday and then Slovakia and Turkey on Friday, where he met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

In a televised news conference early Saturday morning in Istanbul after his meeting with Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Erdogan said that “Ukraine deserves NATO membership with no doubt.”

But President Biden, who is scheduled to attend the summit during a trip to Europe next week, told CNN in an interview set to be broadcast on Sunday that Ukraine’s acceptance into NATO would most likely have to wait until after the war.

“I don’t think there is unanimity in NATO about whether or not to bring Ukraine into the NATO family now, at this moment, in the middle of a war,” Mr. Biden said, according to an excerpt published by CNN.

At the same time, Mr. Biden defended what he called the “very difficult” decision to provide Ukraine with cluster munitions, which are outlawed by many of America’s closest allies and which have been known to cause grievous injuries months or even years after fighting ends. Both Russia and Ukraine have used the weapons during the war.

Officials in Kyiv welcomed Mr. Biden’s move, with Ukraine’s defense minister, Oleksii Reznikov, saying the weapons would “significantly help” and would only be used “in the fields” against Russia’s military, not in urban areas. “It is important to note,” he wrote on Twitter, that Russian forces have “been indiscriminately using cluster munitions from Day 1” of the invasion.

That point appeared to resonate with many in Ukraine, where Kharkiv was trending on Twitter as people pointed to Russia’s use of cluster munitions there earlier in the war.

Underscoring the continued threat, Ukraine’s prosecutor general said that cluster munitions, a weapon shunned by many nations, were used in the Lyman attack on Saturday. Physical evidence reviewed by a New York Times journalist at the scene of the strike — which the authorities initially said had killed eight but later revised down to seven — appeared consistent with the Ukrainian assessment that cluster munitions had been used.

While some allies have objected to the U.S. decision to give Kyiv cluster munitions, Mr. Biden said depriving Ukraine of the weapons would amount to leaving it defenseless against Russia. He said it was a temporary move to tide Ukraine over until the production of conventional artillery rounds could be ramped up.

“The Ukrainians are running out of ammunition,” Mr. Biden said in an interview with CNN.

Ukrainian forces are about a month into their counteroffensive, a slow and bloody attack aimed at driving Russian forces from the country’s south and east. Though bolstered by training and sophisticated new weapons from Western allies, Kyiv’s forces have notched only small gains, and the fierce fighting has cost Ukraine an undisclosed number of casualties, along with some of its newest tanks and armored vehicles.

While the counteroffensive rages, Russian forces have continued to fire missiles and launch drones on Ukrainian towns and villages behind the front lines.

On the eve of the 500th day, the United Nations said that it had confirmed the deaths of more than 9,000 civilians — including more than 500 children — since the full-scale invasion, calling it a “grim milestone” in a war that “continues to exact a horrific toll.” It warned that the true number of dead was likely to be much higher.

That toll climbed again on Saturday in Lyman, where not long after the strike trash collectors and the few civilians remaining in the city went about their day, seemingly accustomed to the episodes of violence that sometimes travel to their homes from the front line 10 miles away.

Anzhela, an employee at a local shop who declined to give her full name for security reasons, said she was in the shop when the strike hit.

“The walls saved us, so thank God, we are fine,” she said, adding: “But outside, a man was wounded next to the shop. The man had just came out, and then what happened next we don’t know.”

Just hours after the victims had been taken away, a second barrage of rockets hit the city center. The number of casualties, if any, was not immediately clear.


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