Why many Ukrainians say this war is not a year old and help has come too late

Commander-in-Chief of Ukraine's Armed Forces Valeriy Zaluzhny attends a commemorative event on the occasion of the Russia Ukraine war one year anniversary, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Friday, Feb. 24, 2023. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Ukraine marks one year since the invasion of their country Credit: PA

"I would have stayed, had it not been for my children". 

It's a phrase that I've heard numerous times over the past month from Ukrainian women who find themselves in the UK, often separated from their husbands, partners, siblings and parents.

So much has been written and said about the full scale military war which broke out a year ago on 24th February 2022. But there are still stories to tell from those who up until now, have simply been too traumatised to express how they feel. 

As part of my work putting together reports to mark the day Putin decided he wanted to take land which isn't Russia's, I've spoken to refugees who a year on, find themselves in limbo. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy marking the first anniversary of the war in Ukraine Credit: AP

Many women who are now in the Midlands wouldn't be here at all if they didn't have young children. But coming from cities being shelled nightly, such as Kharkiv, they felt they had no choice but to leave their husbands and partners behind and scramble to get out of the country. They were fine risking their own life, but their children's was one they were not willing to leave in the balance. 

I've heard stories of people leaving their homes to buy food and supplies and never coming back, their bodies left out in the cold for days until they are found. Children have died alongside their parents in truly harrowing moments, told to me by those who were there. It paints a truly shocking picture. 

It's worth noting the differences between East and West.

A lot of these recollections come from the East of Ukraine. It's worth noting the differences between East and West.

Traditionally, the East of the country is more aligned with Russia, indeed there are those who speak more Russian than Ukrainian. The West of Ukraine is much more westernised and I've been told that often, those from the East fleeing to the West have felt at times unwelcome. 

Almost reminiscent of East/West Germany and Berlin during the Cold War. 

It is in the East of course that Putin felt he could make great strides and that he would largely be welcomed. And it is true to say that he will have some support in those Eastern regions.

But he also vastly underestimated the resilience of Ukrainians who wish to stay independent. Cities like Kharkiv have not fallen, even if at first, the surrounding areas did. Counter offences have brought a lot of places back under Ukrainian control, but Russia still controls large areas such as the Donbas region which includes cities like Donetsk.

This war is not a year old

And here is the point many Ukrainians have been at pains to express to me. For them, this war is not a year old. It started in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and backed Russian separatists in the aforementioned places. The war never ceased and so many have been living under Russian control since then in a war zone.

The situation in those regions has deteriorated massively. 

There is a great contrast between 2014 and 2022. The west and NATO, horrified at the full scale invasion, have done everything it can without putting boots on the ground. But for many Ukrainians, although grateful, it has come too late and allowed Russia to establish themselves in those cities and regions.

Instead, Russia hosted the World Cup and life went on as usual. 

The Baltic countries of Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania and Poland repeatedly warned fellow NATO countries of the risk of appeasement but the response was minimal.

It has led us to this situation now where a full scale invasion has to be repelled with Western help and although there is hope, it's unknown whether the Donbas or Crimea will ever return to Ukrainian hands.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak joined a one-minute silence outside Number 10 Credit: Jordan Pettitt/PA

Caught in the crossfire

There has of course been much wider implications of the war, many of which we have covered here at ITV Central. The cost of living crisis for example has been exacerbated by it and the country is now home to over 160,000 Ukrainian refugees. 

The fear for them is that they would be homeless and stateless, but Russia has never been able to seize the whole country and it is extremely doubtful that this will happen. As with any conflict, it is those refugees who are caught in the crossfire - sometimes literally being mowed down as two sides fight metres or miles apart. 

Those here I've spoken to want to return home, but know they can't.

They want to hug loved ones but know they can't.

There is so much uncertainty still, but at the very least there is hope.

When I attended the vigil in Nottingham hours after Russia invaded, there were tears and fears. The small community felt like their world had ended.

A year on, that community has grown and there's the feeling that the war will not be lost. Billions of Western dollars, weapons and a country determined to survive has made that scenario likely.

Some Ukrainians may never go back, others will have lost more than just belongings and it's true to say that this is a war that has changed the make-up of Europe and the UK, potentially for good. 

But although it is a year since we woke up to the news of the invasion, for many Ukrainians this is simply a continuation of events that started 9 years ago. 

Except now, the whole world is watching.