June 5, 2023

Washington, DC

Seven-year-old Karolina plays the piano at the Ukraine House cultural center here in the nation’s capital, poking at keys, swinging her sneakers underneath. She could be any child playing the piano – except the legs swinging below the bench are prosthetic.

Karolina lost her legs last fall in a Russian attack on the Ukrainian city of Nikopol and came to the United States to receive treatment.

Sitting with Karolina is Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, who helped arrange the young girl’s care.

Visits like these are now typical for the wartime ambassador.

“It’s running a marathon and just doing every day whatever you can do, in order to move our country a little bit closer to the victory,” Markarova told CNN at the Ukrainian Embassy late last month. “It’s definitely a very difficult, very demanding experience.”

This month marks two years since Markarova became ambassador. She was less than a year into her post when Russian leader Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

“We were preparing for it,” she recalled. “We knew that the intent to attack us was there, but you never completely believe until, unfortunately, something horrific like war happens.”

Markarova said that for the first couple of months of the war she would wake up and wonder if it was a bad dream.

“Everyone in Ukraine, of course, it’s more difficult for them,” she acknowledged. “As I say always, the bombs are not falling on us here – but we work literally 24/7 since February 24, and we will continue working like that until we win.”

Markarova never envisioned herself in this position. Her background is in finance, and she spent 17 years working in the private sector before serving in Ukraine’s finance ministry from 2015 to 2020. Her original objective as ambassador to the US was to work on investments and business partnerships.

When reminded by CNN that she had once said she’d expected the job to be a return to a “comfortable life,” Markarova offered a smile and a laugh.

“Serving as an ambassador is a very honorary role. It’s probably one of the highest services you can do for your country,” she said. “So it’s a very interesting life, but, of course, it’s much less comfortable when your country’s at war.”

Despite the unexpected circumstances, Markarova said her background in finance helps her immensely now.

“A lot of help that we have been receiving from the US, from President Biden, Congress on a strong bipartisan basis, is about security assistance – but also budget assistance, also financial support, also about accountability and transparency. This is something I know really well, and it’s very important, I think, to share this with our partners here,” she said.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the US, as he arrives in Washington, DC, on December 21, 2022.

These days, much of Markarova’s time is spent outside the embassy, shuttling between various government agencies around Washington.

The former private equity associate said she is not only working on securing military aid from Congress but also seeking support from American companies and entities as Ukraine begins rebuilding.

On a recent car ride from the Capitol to the Commerce Department for one of those meetings, Markarova noted the cars she uses have become “a second office.”

“This is where I prepare between the meetings, drive around everywhere,” she told CNN from the back seat.

It’s also where she types her social media posts – from accounts she manages on her own. She said communicating on Instagram, Twitter and elsewhere has been instrumental in getting support for her country.

Markarova believes her job here is “to be the voice of Ukraine” and reach as many people as possible, including allies in the administration and on Capitol Hill.

“In general, we are fortunate to have such strong bipartisan support. We have champions – I wouldn’t even say champions of Ukraine, champions of democracy – people who really understand how important it is for the US, for everyone who believes in the same values,” she said as the car continued down Constitution Avenue.

While House Republicans are divided over helping Ukraine, Markarova said she doesn’t see a difference with the chamber’s new GOP majority. She conceded, however, that there are members she has to “talk to more.”

There’s a growing divide on Ukraine within the field of would-be GOP presidential hopefuls, too. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a potential 2024 candidate, said last month that defending Ukraine is not of “vital interest” to the United States, though he later referred to Putin as a “war criminal.” Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who entered the race in February, said at a town hall that the conflict in Ukraine was “a war about freedom. And it is a war we have to win.”

Markarova hopes the burgeoning political debate will not weaken support overall.

“The fight that we fight now is not only a Ukrainian fight, it’s [an] American fight, and it’s the fight of anyone who believes in the same values,” she said.

Last month, the International Criminal Court leveled war crime charges against Putin for an alleged scheme to forcibly transfer thousands of Ukrainian children to Russia. Maria Lvova-Belova, Russia’s commissioner for children’s rights, was also charged. Putin is the first head of state of a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to be issued with an arrest warrant.

Putin and Lvova-Belova deny the allegations, but according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, more than 16,000 forced transfers have taken place, and the real number “may be much higher,” he said last month.

“I can say it the way it is: They have been kidnapped. Not allegedly,” Markarova said when asked about the arrest warrant. She told CNN that Russia has been doing it since the beginning of the invasion last year.

“That’s why it’s so important to liberate it faster, because we don’t even know how many people have been murdered or have been kidnapped,” she said.

According to a report from the US State Department-backed Conflict Observatory, which is run by the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab, the Russian government is holding thousands of Ukrainian children in camps meant to reeducate them with pro-Russia messages and putting them into foster care or adoption in Russia.

“[They’re] essentially torturing children, telling them to deny who they are and telling them that they are Russians,” Markarova said.

The 46-year-old mother of four told CNN she’s not usually an angry person, but this makes her “very angry.”

“It’s a criminal act, which is punishable by the most harsh sentences. This is how justice should look like,” she said.

Markarova speaks during a rally at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, on March 27, 2022.

Markarova is married to businessman Danylo Volynets, whom she credits with supporting her no matter what.

“It would be much more difficult to do it if your partner does not understand you or does not support you,” Markarova said. “Strong men – my husband is definitely one of them – I don’t think are intimidated by strong women.”

These strong women, she believes, also make great diplomats.

“I think women are peacemakers and peacekeepers. Of course, I shouldn’t be generalizing because not all men are the same, not all women are the same,” Markarova said. “But in general, I think women are always trying to forge partnerships, have friendly relations … and it’s very important.”

The first female Ukrainian ambassador to the US, Markarova said she has formed a sisterhood with the other female ambassadors.

“We meet on a regular basis. We talk on a regular basis. We support each other. And I think it’s very important for women to support women,” Markarova said. “The challenges that we face sometimes are different.”

“Regardless of the fact whether you are top CEO or in the leading positions, the majority of people still expect that it’s [the] woman that has to take care of children or has to take care of the household,” she said, adding that men don’t usually get asked questions such as “Would you be able to do it? You know, you have small kids.”

The ambassador said she learns a lot from her children – two of whom attend school here in Washington.

“Both them and the older girls, they understand what this fight is about. They had to probably grow up a little bit faster during this year,” Markarova said. “They had classmates from Kyiv who went through horrible experiences this year.”

Her kids aren’t her only source of inspiration. Ukraine’s Embassy is in the Forrest-Marbury House, where the United States’ first president, George Washington, decided the boundaries of the nation’s new capital.

“We’re very proud, really, especially now that we fight for our independence. To own a building that has seen people who fought for [US] independence is remarkable,” Markarova said.

It’s a connection that underlines her country’s current situation for the ambassador.

“The Russian Empire is trying still to grab the territories around it, but freedom is winning. Ukraine is winning, and we have to make that win decisive and get to peace,” she said.


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