In Ukraine, soldiers and civilians shrug off Zelensky's summit

A man looks out over Kyiv from an observation point in the Ukrainian capital (Roman PILIPEY)
A man looks out over Kyiv from an observation point in the Ukrainian capital (Roman PILIPEY)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has lofty ambitions for a summit in Switzerland this weekend, but on the front line and in war-fatigued Kyiv, hopes for any major breakthrough are nearly nil.

The conference convening some 90 countries and global institutions is coming at a perilous moment for exhausted Ukrainians and outgunned soldiers, after more than two years of war.

Sergiy, a deputy commander of a tank brigade deployed to the eastern Donetsk region where fighting is fiercest, said that when powerbrokers sit down to really thrash out an end to fighting, it probably won't be at a plush summit.

"Politics is politics," the 36-year-old told AFP, sceptical that the meeting would improve the situation in the Donetsk.

"Good weapons will do something, that's for sure."

Danylo, a 23-year-old drone operator also said the gathering would not bring about "drastic" changes.

"It's probably more of a symbolic event," he said.

Under-resourced Ukrainian forces have been ceding village after village in the east and north to determined Russian attacks, forcing authorities to announce mandatory civilian evacuations.

- No 'high hopes' -

The army has launched a mobilisation drive that has instilled fear among the population that fathers, husbands and sons will be dispatched to the front.

And Russian strikes have knocked out or hindered electricity supplies for millions of Ukrainians, leaving them in the dark for hours on end.

In the capital, 36-year-old Victoria, who works in the energy industry, said she was "exhausted" by the war and that she wanted to believe the summit would help end it.

But her expectations were tempered.

"I'm a realist in life, so I don't have high hopes."

Zelensky has said one of the key points raised at the summit would be the return of Ukrainian prisoners of war.

The issue has deep resonance with 40-year-old Lidia Rybas, who says she has "big expectations" for the talks in Switzerland.

"My own brother is a prisoner of war with the Russians. I am more concerned about this topic," she said.

Oleksandr, a 22-year-old information security specialist, was blunt.

"I believe that the war will end in a brutal military way," he said, allowing that the meeting might offer some momentary "hope."

"But still, the issue of ending the war will be decided on the battlefield," he added.

- 'Come home alive' -

That is a worrying prospect for Ukraine, whose forces have been losing ground in the Donetsk region, and also in the border region of Kharkiv.

Zelensky has been urging allies to step up arms supplies -- particularly air defence systems -- to counter Russia's advance and restore Ukrainian territory as part of his 10-point plan that will dominate the agenda at the summit.

Back in Donetsk, a region the Kremlin claims is part of Russia, 38-year-old tank company commander Maksym echoed the reservations of other servicemen around the summit.

"I'd like to hope that it will bring some changes in the future. But, as experience shows, nothing comes of it," he said.

Some servicemen said they would not be following the summit at all.

"We just don't have time to watch the news. We don't even have time to just call our families," said Oleksandr, also in the tank brigade.

On the front, holding back assaults from Russian forces, tired and tunnel-visioned Ukrainian servicemen have a different set of priorities, the 53-year-old said.

"All the guys want to come home alive," he told AFP.