Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. explains how Western notions of Ukraine have changed over course of full-scale

9 January, 08:15 PM
Oksana Markarova, Ambassador of Ukraine to the USA (Photo:Photo: Oksana Markarova / Facebook)

Oksana Markarova, Ambassador of Ukraine to the USA (Photo:Photo: Oksana Markarova / Facebook)

For centuries, Russia has been working in the West to "sell" everyone the notion that there is only one big and terrible Russia in the region, and everything else is a mistake that happened in 1991, Ukraine's Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova said in an interview with Radio NV.

But Ukraine is perceived completely differently now, she states.

During the conversation, the diplomat explained how the opinions of experts in the United States have evolved over 10 months of war, and how the White House views Ukraine's eventual victory.

NV: The evolution of the assistance that Ukraine receives from the United States is really impressive. In those first days when the full-scale invasion began, how difficult was the communication?

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Markarova: As a person who is present at all the meetings, [I will say that] there are things that, of course, we will not discuss now. This is for the books – after our victory.

But in all seriousness, [it is] worth going back to President Zelenskyy's previous visit [to the United States] in 2021. We talked extensively about several things then. First, that we need to be proactive – that we need preventive sanctions, that we need more military capabilities. We even signed a framework agreement with the United States for five years on the foundations of a strategic partnership, a defense partnership. The presidents then agreed on the Charter on Strategic Partnership, and we signed it in November when Minister [Dmytro] Kuleba and Secretary [Antony] Blinken met.

All this work actually laid the foundation for the fact that from February, from the first day of the full-scale invasion, we could receive weapons and the first sanctions packages very quickly from our partner and ally – the United States. [The sanctions] were imposed practically in the first days. This is precisely because we were preparing them.

We, as Ukraine, asked for these packages [of sanctions] as preventive at the time. That is, as those that will be able to deter Russia and make it understand that they underestimate not only Ukraine in terms of fighting, but also the West in terms of readiness to impose sanctions.

Was it hard? Of course it was. On the one hand, I work in a country that is our strategic friend. And it is much easier than working in a country where the local establishment does not support your country. That is a completely different level of challenge.

But also in the United States, understanding that we are supported, still most experts... I am not talking about our partners, not about President Biden or Secretary Blinken, or officially the White House or Congress, who have always supported us. But this is democracy. When making decisions in the United States, they always take into account expert opinion, public opinion. And the hardest thing was to see in the first days of the aggression, when most experts on all media platforms here were discussing how many days we would last.

This was the general dominant [theme]. From the first days, everyone spoke with admiration about the president who stayed to fight with his country, about all the people who said "we will not surrender". But the prevailing expert opinion was that "two days, three days, a week – who can resist Russia?", which was overestimated by the majority, underestimating us. And it was very hard.

Of course, there were rare voices in those days that said "no, listen to the ambassador, listen to what President Zelenskyy says, they will not give up, they have a chance". But it was not the mainstream.

Although with every new victory we had, with every day that we withstood, despite all the terrible costs, we saw this mainstream [becoming more and more popular], with them admiring us.

I mean, there was never total negativity. They admired us, but some said: "They're so good, they're fighting so hard, but unfortunately, it probably won't last." And how this mainstream was replaced by the mainstream of those people who from the very beginning said: "No, you don't know Ukrainians, give them a chance. If we give them more weapons, if we give them more, they will definitely withstand [the Russians].”

Let's also not underestimate the propaganda that the Russian Federation [conducted] – and before that, the Soviet Union. This is a great tradition, so to speak, of Russian-Soviet propaganda, which for centuries actually spent a lot of resources in the West, in the United States in particular. In university circles, in museums, in which Kyivan Rus was always titled "modern Russia". That is, they have been systematically, for centuries and especially for the last 30 years, working to sell the point of view to everyone around that there is only one great and terrible Russia in our region, and everything else is something fleeting, a mistake that happened in 1991.

Coming back to your question, it was, on the one hand, difficult, and on the other hand, during these 10 months we made them believe in everything that we had been doing for the previous 30 years, what we were trying to prove to the world. They believed in what we said before.

Today we see the transition from "we support Russia" in the public opinion to "we support Ukraine, but unfortunately, Russia is bigger, perhaps Ukraine will not succeed", to the surprise that "Ukraine is doing well, it is succeeding", to the understanding that Ukraine must win, because [victory] is important not only for Ukraine.

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Russia has to lose. And the beginning of the discussion of what this loss of Russia should look like is a huge evolution.

Ukraine is perceived completely differently now. And why is this important? Because in a country that is built on the principles of democracy (and the United States is exactly such a country), this understanding of expert and public opinion is very important for the Administration, the President, the Congress, who represent the people, to support us more freely and quickly.

NV: We see skeptics in the American media about whether it is possible to liberate certain territories. We have information from our very high-ranking sources in the President's Office that the United States still wants to take Crimea off the table. They believe that Crimea is definitely not worth touching...

Markarova: This is not true. The issue of Crimea has never been isolated. Not once. Crimea is Ukraine; this position has never been [debated] at all.

President Zelenskyy's peace formula is a proposal of Ukraine, a vision of Ukraine that all diplomats are actively discussing with our allies. In fact, before the president formulated the 10-step peace formula, these positions had been voiced by Zelenskyy since the beginning of the full-scale invasion.

When we talk about territorial integrity, we are talking about the internationally recognized borders of Ukraine. In this case, Crimea is no different from other oblasts that were seized by Russia in 2014-2015 or those that were temporarily occupied this year.

Restoring territorial integrity, returning all our people, bringing everyone to justice, rebuilding – these are very important positions. Everything that is written in the formula of peace is the strategy in which we are moving.

When we say that this is our goal, there are different [approaches] on how and when we can reach it. But then this is also a question of what Russia is doing for this and how successful or unsuccessful we are. It is not only a question of how we want and how we planned. It is a very complicated situation.

Secondly, account for the caveat that we – while liberating our territories (and this is a clear position of the President and all our Armed Forces), unlike the Russians, try not to endanger our civilians who are under occupation. We try not to destroy, unlike the Russians, who wage war just to destroy, to bomb.

Do we understand how our allies see the victory of Ukraine and the defeat of Russia? I think that few people now fully understand this, as it is also a process. That is, we have a clear understanding of how we want our victory to look. And the rest is a matter of discussion with all our partners.

On the one hand, we need to maintain our ability to fight, defend and support the viability of Ukraine all the time. It is not only about military actions, it is about business, about the ability to educate children, about the ability to provide basic things to our citizens so that they do not leave.

The second is to keep the ability of all our partners and allies to help us. And Russia is working very hard to destroy this coalition, starting with energy manipulations, food, migration crises.

And the third is the sanctions that we are imposing on Russia so that it loses its ability to fight and attack quickly. And in the way we deal with all these points, there are many options, and modalities; there is a lot that is possible and impossible.

Our task is to convince everyone that no matter how hard it is, the whole world needs the victory of Ukraine and the defeat of autocratic, aggressive Russia.

We have heard and hear now from President Biden every time, in every press conference, during every conversation, that the United States is with Ukraine as long as it is needed. And this is a very important phrase. Our task is to accelerate this victory. It is still a big task and it is still not guaranteed.

I think no one understands this as well as our military on the battlefield. But no matter what anyone thinks is likely, improbable, difficult, not difficult, today, a year from now, or three years from now, our task is to continue to actively do what we are doing, because that's the only thing that will get us closer to help. More weapons, more sanctions, more assistance to Ukraine. And we will reach the goal we set for ourselves faster.

NV: Does the United States understand that Russia has declared eternal war on us?

Markarova: Russia declared eternal war on us when it took Baturyn in 1708. Russia promoted its narratives, and our liberation struggle for the last 400 years has not been studied enough everywhere. And that is why in 1991 many people were surprised by independence, despite the opinion of many.

We have been fighting for the restoration of our independence for more than a century. Therefore, the eternity of our war with those who sold themselves as brothers or friends is our reality, the one in which we have lived all this time. And the last 30 years, when Russia tried to influence all the processes in Ukraine, when they infiltrated […] all our intelligence bodies [with their people], in the power bloc – this is all part of this eternal war.

That is why all diplomats are very active in this area as well, telling the true story, so that everyone understands that any pause which Russia really wants now is a pause to rearm, prepare, and attack us again.

If you look at President Zelenskyy's peace formula, a huge role is given to security guarantees for the future. That is why the work we are doing on our future membership not only in the EU, but also in NATO, is so important.

It is an illusion that we can be neutral, buffer zones – everything that was sold to us before 2014 as a real alternative. There is no such alternative. It is very simple: either you are part of the civilized world and defend yourself together with the civilized world, or Russia will attack us.

Our victory means not only that Russia stops shooting, not only the restoration of territorial integrity, not only the return of people, but [also] bringing them to justice. This is an important topic that all diplomats are working on now. This is a big task – the issue of the tribunal for the crime of aggression.

There is a national prosecution in Ukraine. More than 10 countries have opened criminal proceedings. We have appealed to all international courts. Why is the tribunal important, and [specifically] the tribunal for the crime of aggression? Because, if I may say so, it is the basis of all the crimes that are taking place. Therefore, this part of prosecution is very important not only to win now, but to stop or put an end to the eternal war, because Russia must be punished, and must pay criminally, morally, and legally for this.

NV: Russia's closest ally is Belarus. Does the United States have any leverage to influence Belarus?

Markarova: In our relations with the United States, we have never actually ruled out or ignored the role of Belarus in this aggression, which de facto takes part in it, because it allowed the use of its border. It let troops pass, strikes were and are being inflicted on us from the territory of Belarus, troops are trained in Belarus. Therefore, in our work on sanctions, for example, we never separate Belarus from Russia.

If you look at the sanctions packages, of course, the main focus is sanctioning Russia, Russian officials, military, business, citizens and organizations. But Belarusian organizations are there on par with them.

As soon as we find confirmation of participation somewhere, we also immediately react to it. Restrictions have been imposed on Belarus recently, for example, on Iran or on those countries that help Russia to avoid sanctions. There are even EU member states or partners [among them]. That is, if businesses, citizens or organizations are involved in such shameful things, they also fall under sanctions.

Is there any way to influence Lukashenko? To me, this is part of the same story – whether it is possible to influence Putin. Our task is to sanction as much as possible and to show them, to create such a price so that Lukashenko and the leaders of Belarus understand that they should not continue to participate in this absolutely shameful, unfair, unprovoked war.

For example, I never call it Putin's war, because it is the war of the Russian Federation. We see that the vast majority of Russians support this war because it is an old, eternal war. And this Great Russian imperialism, unfortunately, is not solely confined to the Kremlin. In Belarus, obviously, the situation is a little bit different. And I don't know how much we can trust the polls when the repressive regime is working in the country, but we saw that Belarusians came out to protest, there are “rail partisans” and so on. We see that there are people who, even at risk to themselves, still try to fight against it. Whether this country can be called fully occupied or not [is up for debate], but for Belarus as a country we have a very clear message with our partners: sanctions and restrictions.

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