LAST week marked the first anniversary of Russia’s illegal and unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

The suffering and sacrifice of Ukrainians over the past year has been heartbreaking – but their resilience in the face of aggression, and their steadfast determination to defend freedom and democracy, have also been inspiring.

Although Ukraine is fighting first and foremost for its own independence and territorial integrity, the values it is defending matter to all of us.

That is why the world owes Ukraine not just solidarity but as much practical support as possible to help it win the war.

The Scottish Government will continue to do all we can to help.

So far, we have made a £65 million contribution to UK military assistance.

We have also provided £4m in aid for basic humanitarian assistance, including in health, water and sanitation, and shelter for those fleeing Ukraine. 

Five consignments of medical supplies worth around £3m have already gone from Scotland to Poland for onward transport to Ukraine.

And we have committed £300,000 to The HALO Trust, a Dumfries and Galloway-based charity that specialises in removing landmines and other dangerous explosive devices.

Our country is also providing a place of safety and security for those displaced by the war.

So far, Scotland has welcomed more than 23,000 Ukrainians into our communities, the majority of them arriving through our ‘super sponsor’ scheme.

This national response is unprecedented and has involved close partnership working between national and local government, third-sector organisations and community groups. I am so grateful to everyone who has worked above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that we are offering a warm Scottish welcome to those who need our help.

And while the Ukrainians who have settled here over the past year have done so out of necessity, they are also making an invaluable contribution to life in Scotland. Many have taken up employment, others are volunteering across the country, and children and young adults have settled into schools, colleges and universities.

All of us want to see a speedy and decisive victory for Ukraine over Putin’s aggression, so that the country can once again live in peace and democracy, with its independence and territorial integrity restored.

When that happens, those who have been displaced by the war will be able to return home to their families, friends, communities and country – as so many yearn to do. But for as long as they need to be here, they will be welcome. Scotland will be their home for as long as necessary.

In other news since my last column, I have announced my intention to step down as First Minister. I will demit office at the end of March, once my successor has been elected.

Being First Minister has been the biggest privilege of my life – nothing I do in future will ever come close.

But after eight years in the job, which of course included the heavy responsibility of leading Scotland through Covid – and almost eight years before that as Deputy First Minister – the time is right for the country to have fresh leadership.

While it will be for others to judge my time in office, I am proud of what has been achieved.

For example, young people from a deprived background have never had a better chance of going to university than they do now.

Our investment to double early learning and childcare is transforming opportunities for the youngest children, and enabling more parents to return to work.

And we have a more progressive approach to tax and a new social security system, with the £25 Scottish Child Payment at its heart.

I have confidence that a new leader will build on the progress our country has made since 2014 and take us forward to even brighter times ahead.

For my part, while I am stepping down from leadership, I am not leaving politics. I will continue to represent my Glasgow Southside constituents to the very best of my ability.

And there are many issues I care deeply about and hope to champion in future.

One of these is The Promise – the national mission to improve the life chances of care experienced young people and ensure that they grow up nurtured and loved. My commitment to these young people will be life-long.

Another passion of mine is the fight against climate change, which is more urgent than ever. We must ensure that Scotland uses its vast renewable resources to lead the way in the just transition to net zero, capturing the economic benefits along the way – and that we also continue to be a voice for global justice.

And I will always be a voice for equality and inclusion. As a woman in politics over the past 30 years, I know how hard it can be to be part of an under-represented group. Progress has been made but – especially in this age of populism, culture wars and polarised discourse – there is still much to do to ensure that progressive politics wins through.

I am looking forward to continuing work on these and other important issues in the years ahead.