Foreign editor David Pratt returns to Ukraine amid the two-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion 

IT’S been 10 hours now on the train journey from Poland and there are still another two to go. Here in the sleeping compartment, it’s warm and cosy, while outside the snow blows in horizontal flurries and every patch of water is frozen solid.

It’s a landscape of endless birch trees, grey and monochrome except for the occasional splash of brilliant colour, pale green or blue from the painted houses, domed churches, tractors or ubiquitous Lada cars dotting the rural communities the train passes through.

I’ve made this journey to Kyiv so many times now, in every season, mainly by train but also by road. Looking at Google Maps, I notice we are somewhere north of the Ukrainian city of Zhytomyr.

It was while travelling by car to Kyiv just over two years ago, around Zhytomyr, shortly after the Russian invasion that I recall the ring road outside the city blockaded with sandbagged checkpoints manned by Ukrainian troops.

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Zhytomyr was the road corridor to the capital and every day Russian troops and tanks were drawing closer to cutting this lifeline route to the Ukrainian capital. Back then, dotted along the motorway there were signs of damage from incoming Russian shells while the dull thud of explosions occasionally drifted into earshot when we pulled over at a petrol station or waited as our IDs were checked by Ukrainian soldiers.

Missile attacks had already rained down on Zhytomyr airport in the days following the Russian invasion. The Iskander rocket fire by the Russians came from neighbouring Belarus and in the weeks that followed there would be increased shelling of Zhytomyr city itself.

It’s hard to imagine that all this was two years ago now. Ever harder to accept that since those early days, the fighting has been unceasing and the bloodletting reached such terrible proportions. It’s hard also to think of the expanse of territory the Russians overran in those early days of the invasion.

On that early journey to Kyiv along with Scottish filmmaker Robbie Fraser and our Ukrainian driver and film field producer, we had to make the most convoluted of dangerous detours along back roads and traversing rural backwater communities where farmers-turned-resistance-fighters had thrown up improvised barricades bulldozing earth berms using tractors and JCBs and carrying whatever weapons they could lay their hands on.

The National: Ukrainian soldiers firing a cannon (LibKos/AP)

On one occasion, we were pulled over by a group of local men armed only with old shotguns, air pistols and crowbars, suspicious of the foreigners who might be Russian spies.

These, after all, were the early days of the conflict. The days long before the talk was of US or European and Nato military support and weapons.

Back then there was no mention of Challenger, Leopard or Abrams battle tanks. No talk of High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) and Storm Shadow missiles or F-16 fighters planes. Then the talk everywhere was simply of resistance giving rise to an overwhelming sense that Ukrainians were determined by whatever means at their disposal that their Russian invaders would not pass.

Arriving in Kyiv back then with the Russian tanks and troops menacing at the city’s gates, that sense of digging in for the defence of their land became ever more apparent.

If the Russians were to take Kyiv, they would do so at heavy cost, was the prevailing view of almost every Ukrainian I met at the time.

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In those days, the city was blanketed with “hedgehog” anti-tank traps made of metal angle beams and sandbags. Every night a reminder of just how close the Russians were to the city centre would come as we lay awake in the darkness along with countless Kyivians listening to the sound of explosions and machine gun fire audible from the city’s outskirts.

The Ukrainians were on their own back then and the world had not yet fully woken up to Vladimir Putin’s onslaught that would go on to raze whole cities and communities to the ground.

It was an onslaught that would see torture, the murder of civilians and war crimes in places like Bucha and Mariupol that began to shock the world.

What then followed would result in trench warfare eerily reminiscent of the First World War, where mud, frostbite and the bitter cold would take a terrible toll alongside the bombs and bullets.

Looking out from our train now passing through the towns of Bucha and near Borodyanka barely an hour by road from Kyiv is another reminder again of how close the Russians came to entering the city.

I have mixed feelings about returning again to Ukraine.

Not from any sense of fear or foreboding but rather from apprehension and what I might find among the mood of its citizens.

Just like back in 2022, right now again there is a distinct sense of Ukrainians having their backs to the wall.

Short of ammunition and support that the West says will keep coming but never seems to materialise at just the right time, Ukrainians know that the days, weeks and months ahead could be the toughest they have yet faced.

In our train carriage are a number of families, some returning home from forced displacement. One young couple with a toddler daughter already looks exhausted from their long journey while their youngster, oblivious to what might lie ahead, watches cartoons on an iPad.

The National: Ukraine vigil in Carlisle's city centre last year

What, I wonder, does indeed lie ahead for this little girl and her parents? What if once again they, like countless other Ukrainians, have to up sticks and flee for their lives across borders into neighbouring countries? Will the world welcome them as before, or has it grown weary hearing of Ukraine’s suffering eclipsed as it has been to some extent of late by the terrible events in Gaza?

Even as I write, reports keep surfacing of another build-up of Russian troops on various frontline areas to the north and south of Ukraine. People here have lived with that malign omnipresence for so long now.

Putin knows that Ukrainians have their backs to the wall again just as they did back on February 24, 2022, when one year ago to the day this coming Saturday he decided Ukraine should be under the Kremlin’s authoritarian rule.

The Russian leader knows too that those intervening two years have taken their toll on both sides, but neither is yet ready or willing to blink first.

Outside, the snow is slowly receding the closer our train gets to Kyiv. Just as on every occasion when I return to Ukraine, I’m never quite sure what to expect or what might have changed, but as this bitter war is about to enter its third year, that’s what I’ve come to find out.

The National will be publishing exclusive reporting from Ukraine by David Pratt