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Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova: ‘We will win this war’

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Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova: ‘We will win this war’
Larry Luxner, news editor of the Washington Diplomat, interviews Ukraine's Oksana Markarova during our Ambassador Insider Series, which took place Feb. 29 at the Embassy Suites Hilton in Bethesda, Maryland. (Photos by Phil Pasquini)

Two years have gone by since Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded neighboring Ukraine, sparking Europe’s biggest conflict since World War II. And the news only seems to get worse.

Just in the last month, following the suspicious death of jailed 47-year-old Russian opposition politician Alexei Navalny, Putin was “re-elected” president with 87% of the vote, extending his rule until 2030. Five days later, a terrorist attack on a Moscow concert hall killed 145 people. Islamic State claimed responsibility for the March 23 massacre—the deadliest to hit Russia in decades—though the Putin regime, without a shred of evidence, insists on blaming Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the war drags on, with casualties on both sides mounting and no clear indication that either side has the upper hand—even though Washington has given the Zelensky government about $75 billion in aid (about 62% of that in military assistance). Support for Ukraine in Congress seems to be waning, especially among Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump, who wants his old job back and has made no secret of his admiration for Putin.

Yet Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, is in no mood to give up.

“We’ve been fortunate to have very strong bipartisan support—from both sides of the aisle—and it’s still there. This was never really a partisan issue,” she told The Washington Diplomat recently. “Now, some people believe that the US should focus on only internal affairs. We just have to explain to these skeptics what’s at stake.”

And what’s at stake is nothing less than the future of Europe, said Markarova, speaking Feb. 29 at our most recent Ambassador Insider Series event.

Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova speaks at our Feb. 29 event in Bethesda, Maryland.

“Putin has been very open about what his goals are,” she said. “Of course, he wants to destroy Ukraine. But he also threatens Poland, the Baltic states and pretty much everyone else in Europe. He threatens anyone who calls him what he is—a genocidal dictator who is recreating an empire. If God forbid we fall, then the next country he attacks is going to be NATO territory.”

The event at which Markarova spoke was hosted by the Embassy Suites Hilton in Bethesda, Md., marking the first AIS since the program’s 2015 inception to take place outside Washington DC. It attracted around 100 people, including Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud and the former ambassador of Hungary, Réka Szemerkényi.

Also in the audience was Annapolis businesswoman Abigail Diehl, who is running for Congress, and numerous journalists, government officials and other dignitaries.

Ambassador is public face of Ukraine in Washington

Markarova, a 47-year-old mother of four and a grandmother—is in hot demand on Capitol Hill and Embassy Row these days. Four days before our event, she was on CBS News’ Face the Nation, and after a particularly horrific Russian missile attack on Ukrainian soil, she declared that “Putin publicly admits his only regret is not starting this genocidal war earlier. Hence the only response from the free world is to double down all efforts to win and defeat this pure evil.”

Before coming to Washington, the ambassador spent five years in Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance, first as deputy minister and then as minister of finance. During her tenure, she helped lead Ukraine’s macroeconomic revival program, reducing Ukraine’s debt-to-GDP ratio to below 50%.

From left: Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova; Larry Luxner, news editor of the Washington Diplomat; and Swiss Ambassador Jacques Pitteloud.

Markarova introduced mid-term budgeting, gender-oriented budgeting and the UkraineInvest government promotion agency. She also established a Ukrainian Startup fund and an eData government finance portal that helped boost Ukraine’s status on all major international data transparency rankings.

Prior to entering public service, the ambassador spent 17 years working in private equity and financial advising, with leadership roles in the ITT investment group, the Western NIS Enterprise Fund, Chemonics and the World Bank.

On Feb. 24, 2022—the day of Russia’s invasion—Markarova and her husband were attending an event at the Salisbury Country Club in suburban Virginia.

“We were about to have tea when I got a message to report back to the embassy immediately,” she recalled. “That’s when the lives of not only all Ukrainian diplomats, but those of everyone back home, changed forever.”

Over the course of the fighting, she said, untold thousands of Ukrainian civilians have died, and about 12 million have lost their homes. Some cities, like Mariupol, are 90% destroyed, while others such as Kharkiv and Bucha are scarred forever. And the Russians themselves claim they’ve forcibly kidnapped tens of thousands of Ukrainian children.

“As a mother, I cannot think of something more horrific than abducting Ukrainian children, taking them into Russia, separating kids from their parents and putting them for speedy adoptions—they even changed their internal laws to be able to do that,” she said. “This is actually the war crime for which Putin personally is indicted, and there is a global arrest warrant for him and for his so‑called ombudsman on children’s issues, Maria Lvova-Belova. We are doing our best to get them back.”

About 100 people attended the Feb. 29 event, including Washington Diplomat Publisher Victor Shiblie (far left) and former Hungarian Ambassador Réka Szemerkényi (far right).

Markarova says ‘war is still winnable’ despite the difficulties

Markarova insists that Ukraine is holding its own despite Russia’s vastly bigger size, population and military might.

“Since the beginning of this horrible war, we have been able to liberate 50% of what they occupied. We were able to finally clear a path to the Black Sea without actually begging them through either UN or somebody else to allow our ships with grain—which is so badly needed by so many countries, especially in the Middle East and Africa—to go out,” she said.

“We have also destroyed or damaged one‑third of the Russian Black Sea fleet, and we did so with Ukrainian‑produced naval drones. In February alone, we destroyed 13 of their aircraft.”

On the other hand, the war’s front line is 600 miles long, she noted, and Ukrainian troops were recently forced to withdraw from the eastern town of Avdiivka, which they had been defending ever since initial hostilities began in 2014. Brutal, close-quarter combat is increasingly defining this war, according to a March 24 report in the New York Times on the battle for Avdiivka.

“The situation is very difficult. We are running out of ammo. We need interceptors to defend airspace everywhere because they are bombing Kyiv, Dnipro and Kharkiv,” Markarova said. “Every day, I wake up here to horrible news of yet another peaceful city being attacked.”

Even so, the ambassador insisted, “this war is still very winnable, but only if we get more weapons and support from all of our friends, including the United States. If we get this quickly, we can get back to liberating our land. Together with sanctions and President Zelensky’s peace formula, that can lead us faster to a just peace.”

Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova responds to a question from Washington Diplomat News Editor Larry Luxner.

According to a recent survey posted in late February on YouGov, 43% of Americans say they’d support Ukraine until Russia is defeated, while resolve is strongest in Sweden (57%), Denmark (51%), and the UK (50%). In addition, more than half of Americans (64%) say they care who wins the war, while Swedes care the most (82%).

Most people in all eight countries surveyed believe the West is not providing enough support to Ukraine to help them beat Russia, though most would not be willing to increase levels of aid.

“Right now, we have bipartisan support, and we have administration support,” she said. “In a democracy, it takes time to discuss and debate, and in an election year, it’s very difficult. We are, of course, concerned about time. I think we have to tell people that this issue is not partisan. The fight for freedom is not Republican or Democrat. It’s an American issue.”

Economic sanctions against Russia—and the hope of diplomacy

Following our interview, Markarova took a few questions from the audience. Anna Gawel, managing editor of Devex—and former managing editor of the Diplomat—asked how tough international sanctions against Russia need to be in order to put the brakes on Putin’s war efforts.

“In 2022, the US and EU introduced a lot of sanctions, and that really had a devastating effect on the Russian economy,” she replied. “But now, even with a price cap on oil, they’ve found new markets and are violating the rules, trying to bypass the sanctions. Of course, the situation is not sustainable in the mid-term or the long term. Unfortunately, because of Russia’s size, it will take a lot of time to get there. So now is the time to double down on sanctions as well.”

From left: Ursula McNamara, Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova and Nicole Christensen.

Specifically, Markarova called for crippling the entire Russian banking system rather than individual banks, as has been done up until now.

“We have already sanctioned 46 banks, and the recent package passed by Congress added nine more banks onto the list. Let’s acknowledge that all financial institutions in Russia are participating in the war effort,” she said. “So it’s time for a sectoral sanction on the financial system, which will not only affect the Russian economy  but also prevent Iran and North Korea from getting access to banking services. This will have a significant effect in denying Russia the resources to continue this war.”

Washington-based journalist Ben Bangoura of Guinea asked what role diplomacy might yet play in ending Ukraine’s war with Russia, given the ambassador’s laser-focused mission of acquiring weapons to defeat the enemy.

“First of all,” she responded, “nobody wants peace more than Ukraine. Unfortunately, there is no war in Russia. The war is in Ukraine. They invaded us, and they’re killing our citizens—on our territory. This is Putin’s war of choice. He can end it in one second.”

The reality, however, is that following Russia’s 2014 takeover of Donetsk and Luhansk in eastern Ukraine, the Kyiv government signed the Minsk Accords.

“They were not particularly fair to Ukraine, but we signed them, we had a ceasefire with Russia, and for eight years we tried to restore our territorial integrity through diplomatic means,” she said. “We held 200 meetings between 2014 and 2022, and we agreed on 10 ceasefires—each of them violated by Russia. Then in 2022, they simply decided to start this full-fledged war.”

Journalist Ben Bangoura of AlloAfricaNews asks Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova a question.

In late 2022, Zelensky proposed a 10-point peace plan that calls for, among other things:

  • Radiation and nuclear safety, including the restoration of safety around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, Zaporizhzhia, which is now occupied by Russia.
  • Food security, and protection of Ukrainian grain exports.
  • Energy security and restoration of Ukraine’s power grid.
  • Release of all war prisoners and deportees, including children deported to Russia.
  • Restoration of Ukraine’s territorial integrity, a point Zelensky said is “non-negotiable.”
  • Withdrawal of all Russian troops and restoration of Ukraine’s border with Russia.
  • Establishment of a special tribunal to prosecute Russian war crimes.
  • Protection of the environment, as well as demining and repairing water treatment plants.
  • Building a security architecture for Ukraine and preventing any escalation of conflicts.
  • Confirmation of the war’s end, including a document signed by both parties.

“At the last meeting in Davos, we already had 83 countries and international organizations” supporting the plan, Markarova said. “Hopefully it’ll be one day supported by 100 or more countries. Then, when Russia is ready for discussions, we will say ‘here is the plan, and it’s not just Ukraine’s plan, it’s the whole world’s plan. Please do it and stop the war.’”

The ambassador added: “This is very important for us, because we are losing people every day.”

Larry Luxner

Miami native Larry Luxner, a veteran journalist and photographer, has reported from more than 100 countries in Latin America, Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Asia for a variety of news outlets. He lived for many years in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the Washington, D.C., area before relocating to Israel in January 2017. Larry has been news editor of The Washington Diplomat since 2005.