Back in November, Moment Special Literary Contributor Robert Siegel, former senior host of NPR’s All Things Considered, interviewed Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova as part of Moment’s 2022 Gala and Awards ceremony. Marakova, recipient of Moment’s Women in Power Award, spoke about the importance of ongoing U.S. support for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russia, her role as ambassador and the challenges of serving in wartime, what it’s like to work with President Volodymr Zelenskyy and more.
This interview has been lightly edited and updated. Watch the unedited interview here.
First of all, how important is American support, both material and political, to Ukraine’s fight for independence?
It’s essential, crucial. Since 2014, well before Russia’s renewed aggression last February, the United States has been supporting us financially and helping us to build our defense capabilities. We signed a new strategic partnership charter in November 2021, and since February, it’s very difficult not to see the support that the United States has been providing to us. We have heard President Biden and Congress, on a very strong bipartisan basis, indicate very clearly that the United States is with Ukraine as long as it takes. So, we are really grateful to everyone, from the president to the American people.
[Now Speaker of the House] Kevin McCarthy has said there will be no blank check for Ukraine with a Republican House majority. There was a poll in the Wall Street Journal that showed a steep decline among Republican voters in their support of aid to Ukraine. And there were some commercials by a political action committee, run by a man close to former President Donald Trump, that essentially said, America is in terrible shape, the economy is awful and Joe Biden’s giving 66 billion dollars to Ukraine; he shouldn’t be doing that. First, are you concerned about Ukraine becoming a partisan cause in the United States, or are you confident that there’s more smoke than fire here? And second, what do you say to an American taxpayer who asks: Why are my dollars going to Ukraine?
First, a recent poll has shown that more than 70 percent of Americans, when asked whether the United States should be supporting Ukraine, said yes. And we’ve also had very strong bipartisan support in Congress for every initiative, whether it’s the supplementary budget, recognizing Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, or supporting other initiatives that have to do with Ukraine. And I think we have reason to believe that we will have that same strong bipartisan support going forward. So, while we hear McCarthy talking about the no blank checks for Ukraine, Ukraine never asked for blank checks. We always report what we need and why we need it.
“If Putin wins in Ukraine, it’s not only going to be a bad message for democracies, it’s going to be a strong reinforcement for all the autocrats who want to change the borders around them through force.”
This leads to your second question: Why should the United States help us? Why is it actually in America’s interest for Ukraine to win? First, because we are fighting for the same values and principles on which this great country is built: freedom, democracy, sovereignty, the ability of people to live as they want to live, the ability of people to choose their own government and to change their own government on a regular basis. This is what we champion in Ukraine, and it is the reason why Russia attacked us, because it’s so different from the kind of autocratic regime we see in Russia. Secondly, we have to listen to what Putin says—the war criminal, Putin. It’s not only about Ukraine. He would like to restore the Russian Empire, and he openly threatens not only Ukraine, which he already attacked, but other countries. He threatens Poland, he threatens the Baltic States, he threatens other countries in Europe. And I also want to remind people that he has attacked us before, he’s attacked Georgia before, he’s attacked Moldova before, and he waged two wars on Chechnya, which wanted to be independent as well. So, if together we do not stop Putin in Ukraine, we will have to stop him elsewhere.
And it’s very important for everyone, and especially for the United States as a country that believes in democracy, to show that democracies not only deliver better to their people—that we know. We also have to show that democracies can defend themselves from autocrats like Putin, because if Putin wins in Ukraine, it’s not only going to be a bad message for democracies, it’s going to be a strong reinforcement for all the autocrats who want to change the borders around them through force.
So, what you’re saying is what’s at stake in Ukraine is more than Ukraine?
Absolutely. If Putin is successful in Ukraine, if Ukraine falls, and he attacks one of the NATO countries, then because of NATO’s Article 5, everyone, including the United States, will have to defend those member countries, not only with military support, which is going to be even more expensive than the amount of money that is provided to Ukraine, but also with people on the ground. We have not requested boots on the ground. We still have lines of Ukrainians who are ready to go to the armed forces and to defend our own country.
What do you say in response to General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who has said that while Ukrainian gains have been remarkable in defending the country against Russia, there still remain many Russian troops on Ukrainian soil—that it is unlikely the Ukrainian army will be able to gain that much ground, and that therefore winter may be a time to test the possibility of negotiations? Is there anything to those arguments?
First, General Milley has been a great support. He has been instrumental in helping us in this fight. And I know he knows that we will keep fighting, and we will continue to liberate our cities, whether it’s summer or winter. We know what happens to our people in the occupied territories. We have seen atrocities in Bucha, in Izyum, in Kherson—thousands of people being tortured and killed by Russians on a daily basis.
“Since 2014, I think Ukraine has shown that our future is in Europe and in NATO, and that we will do everything possible to reform our country to get there.”
We cannot leave our people behind, so we need to liberate our territory all within internationally recognized borders as soon as possible. I’m positive Russia wants an operational pause, as the military people put it, but we are defending our homes and our loved ones. As long as we will have something to fight with, we will continue fighting.
It would be very surprising if, in fact, Ukrainian forces were to mount an offensive during the winter months. Are you saying that’s not unlikely?
Look, we cannot stop even for one day. Again, it’s our brothers and sisters, it’s our children who have been stolen by Russia in occupied territories. Every day matters. Of course we’re trying to do it in a very smart way. Of course our president and commander-in-chief [Volodymyr Zelenskyy] values every Ukrainian life. So, we will not be doing offensives without planning them carefully. Unlike Russians, we care about people who are there in the occupied territories. That’s why we were so careful about liberating Kherson. We couldn’t take the city by force because they were our people there. But we will keep liberating Ukraine.
How do you think this war ends? Do you think it ends with Ukrainian troops pushing Russia off Ukrainian soil, with the Russians sustaining so many losses or facing so much opposition at home that they give up? How does it end?
Well, we went through a very difficult process in 2014 and 2015, when Ukraine was forced to enter into the Minsk Accords, which were not very fair, I would say, to Ukraine. Nevertheless, as a law-abiding country, we decided to stick with them and we implemented them while Russia was violating them all the time.
Because the Minsk Accords acknowledged the Russian presence on Ukrainian soil? Is that how they were unfair to Ukraine?
Crimea is no different than any other place in Ukraine. If we had had the support that we have right now from all of our partners, and if we could have fought in 2014 and 2015, we would have. But I want to remind you, Russia attacked us just months after President Viktor Yanukovych, together with his cronies, fled the country after robbing it blind. So, we were not really in a position then to fight the fight with Russia. Now the situation is different. After eight years of reform, after eight years of building the country and with all the international support, our armed forces were ready to do what President Zelenskyy decided to do on the 24th of February.
“I think the whole world is inspired by President Zelenskyy’s bravery and strength, and his communication skills and his sense of humor. And he’s exactly like that.”
But how does it end? Nobody wants peace more than Ukrainians. But right now, when Russia is attacking us, we can only respond with force. So we will fight until we liberate all of our country within internationally recognized borders. The just victory, for us, is the return of our territories, the return of our people and to see accountability for what the Russians have done.
I wanted to ask you a little bit about yourself. You’re the winner of Moment’s 2022 Women in Power Award. What particular challenges, if any, face women in power, namely women who are ambassadors?
Well, I’m not a career diplomat. I’m a financier who worked in the private sector and then was a minister of finance. I thought I was going back to a comfortable life in private business when the president asked me to serve as ambassador to the United States.
Being a diplomat is a very difficult work, regardless of gender, because it’s a true 24/7 job, and it’s a 24/7 job not only for you but for your entire family. I think it’s also very challenging for women, because you have to have strong support from your partner and from everyone in the household. You have to be able to move, you have to be able to be out there all the time. And it’s a huge honor, of course, to be an ambassador for your country.
It’s a huge responsibility, too, especially in times of war, when you know that so many lives depend on everything you do. Every mistake can result in lives being lost. I think we should have more women ambassadors, because I think women are naturally good negotiators who try to find diplomatic solutions rather than solutions with force. I don’t want to stereotype, but I’m so happy that in Washington now, so many of the ambassadors are women. It’s a challenging job, but it’s also very honorable.
“We should have more women ambassadors, because I think women are naturally good negotiators who try to find diplomatic solutions rather than solutions with force.”
When you were born, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and you were coming of age as the USSR was coming apart. I’m just curious, for yourself and for ordinary people in Kyiv and other Ukrainian cities, what’s been the big difference between life before and after the breakup of the USSR and Ukraine’s emergence as an independent country?
As I always say, I’m of the last generation born under occupation. I was in high school when the Soviet Union finally collapsed. It was such a big difference knowing that you live in your own country, and that you’re free to say what you want to say, to say everything you once only heard your parents talking about in the kitchen and to be able to learn the true history of your country, not the politicized fool history the Soviet teachers gave you in school.
There were whispers about the Holodomor, the genocide of 1932-1933. There were whispers about the persecution of Jewish people in Ukraine. And yet, in school and everywhere, we only heard lies about how everyone is happy in the Soviet Union. And even in the late 1980s, there were still people prosecuted in Ukraine just for speaking Ukrainian, for fighting to organize Ukrainian unions, or for saying something about the true history of Ukraine. The first couple of years after the breakup of the Soviet Union, the economic situation was horrible. I remember the lines in the stores. I remember the shortage of food, which is, again, unbelievable for Ukraine, the country that has been called the breadbasket of Europe. But through all that difficulty, I think the prevailing feeling was: we are free at last.
“Ninety-eight percent of Ukrainians voted for independence, which includes the people of Crimea. And according to all the standards and principles of international law, Crimea is Ukraine.”
Between those economic hard times when Ukraine was first independent and then the very complex political ups and downs and ins and outs of leadership in Kyiv, given the contentious politics of the place, did you always have confidence in Ukraine finding its way, or were there times when you doubted that independence could succeed?
So many generations of Ukrainians dreamt about it and sacrificed so much to get to that moment. I was born in a mixed family—I’m half Ukrainian, half Armenian—but I never had doubts that Ukraine would succeed. After 400 years of occupation, we were able to preserve culture, preserve language, preserve us as a separate nation. We knew how to persevere, we knew how to survive and we also knew how to fight. On the other hand, because the government was, for 400 years, somebody foreign, we didn’t have our own institutions. So, from the first day in 1991, when Ukraine regained independence, we started building new institutions from scratch without having expertise.
That’s why we had those ups and downs. Since 2014, I think Ukraine has shown that our future is in Europe and in NATO, and that we will do everything possible to reform our country to get there.
What’s it like working with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy?
Amazing. I think the whole world is inspired by President Zelenskyy’s bravery and strength, and his communication skills and his sense of humor. And he’s exactly like that. I worked with him when I was a minister of finance, from 2019 after he was elected until 2021. And I have rediscovered him again since February. He has been brave, beyond the decision to stay in Kyiv—that he would be there and he would fight with his own people. I think that decision has been the key decision in this fight. Over and over, throughout all the difficult phases of this, he’s leading by example.
You have said that Crimea is no different from any other part of Ukraine, but the history of Crimea and Ukraine, it’s an odd one. Crimea was moved from Russia into Ukraine by the Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev as a birthday present to Ukraine. It was the 300th anniversary of the relationship between Russia and Ukraine. And it does seem, at least to this outsider, its history is a little different, and it had been a place populated by lots of people who were deported from the peninsula by Stalin. Is it really historically as much a part of Ukraine as the rest of Ukraine? And do you see it as a red line in Putin’s eyes? That is, would the capture of Ukraine register differently with Russians than a battle for the Donbas?
Well, three points here. Point number one: In 1991, Ukraine voted for its independence within the borders that were internationally recognized, in which Ukraine became the cofounder of the UN, in which Ukraine was occupied by the Soviet Union as the Soviet Ukrainian Republic, and Crimea was always part of that. And I have to note that 98 percent voted for independence, which includes the people of Crimea. So, Crimea was independent together with Ukraine since 1991. And according to all the standards and principles of international law, Crimea is Ukraine.
Now, if you look at the history of pre-Russian occupation, in the 1700s, when we lost at the Battle of Poltava, if you look at who ruled in Crimea for a very long time and their alliances with the Ukrainian state at different stages and with Ukrainian Cossacks, and at the common fight against the Moscow Kingdom, it’s very clear that if anyone is there temporarily, it’s actually the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union.
And the third point concerns the Crimean Tatars, the indigenous people of Crimea, who have been brutally persecuted by the Soviets. Not only were they able to come back, finally, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, they voted together with Ukraine and they fought, and they’re fighting now, in Crimea to go back to Ukraine. What Russia did there in 2014 was a sham referendum, no different than the sham referendums they have done recently in Kherson and elsewhere. From that standpoint, whether formally or culturally, or from the people’s perspective, or from the voting results of the people, Crimea is Ukraine and it’ll always be Ukraine.