Seven-year-old Karolina plays the piano at the Ukraine House cultural center here in the nation’s capital, banging on the keys, sneakers underneath. He could be any kid playing the piano – except that the legs swinging under 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 for treatment.
Sitting with Karolina was Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, who helped arrange the girl’s care.
Visits like this are now commonplace for the wartime ambassador.
“It’s running a marathon and just doing every day whatever you can, to move our country closer to victory,” Markarova told CNN at the Ukrainian Embassy last month. “It was a very difficult, very difficult experience.”
This month marks two years since Markarova became ambassador. He was less than a year into his position when Russian leader Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022.
“We prepared for it,” he recalled. “We know that the intention to attack us is there, but you don’t fully believe until, unfortunately, something terrible like war happens.”
Markarova said that in the first two months of the war she would wake up and wonder if it was a bad dream.
“Everything in Ukraine, of course, is more difficult for them,” he admitted. “As I always say, the bombs are not falling on us here – but we have been working literally 24/7 since February 24, and we will continue to work like that until we win.”
Markarova never imagined herself in this position. His background is in finance, and he spent 17 years working in the private sector before serving in the finance ministry of Ukraine from 2015 to 2020. His original purpose as ambassador to the US was to work in investments and business partnerships.
When reminded by CNN that she once said she expected work to return to a “comfortable life,” Markarova offered a smile and a laugh.
“Serving as an ambassador is a noble role. It’s probably one of the highest services you can do for your country,” he said. “So it’s an interesting life, but, of course, it’s not very comfortable.” when your country is at war.”
Despite the unexpected circumstances, Markarova said her background in finance has helped her a lot today.
“A lot of help that we have received from the US, from President Biden, the Congress on a strong bipartisan basis, in terms of security assistance – but also budgetary assistance, also financial support, also in terms of accountability and transparency. This is something I know very well, and it’s very important, I think, to share it with our colleagues here,” he said.
These days, most of Markarova’s time is spent outside the embassy, shuttling between various government agencies around Washington.
The former private equity associate said he is not only working to get military aid from Congress but also seeking support from American companies and entities as Ukraine begins to rebuild.
On a recent car ride from the Capitol to the Commerce Department for one of the meetings, Markarova noted that the cars she uses have become “second offices.”
“I’m here getting ready between meetings, driving everywhere,” he told CNN from the back seat.
This is also where he types his social media posts – from accounts he manages himself. He said that communicating on Instagram, Twitter and elsewhere has been instrumental in getting support for his 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.
“Overall, we’re fortunate to have strong bipartisan support. We have champions — I’m not going to say champions of Ukraine, champions of democracy — people who really understand how important this is for the U.S., for to everyone who believes in the same values,” he said as the car continued down Constitution Avenue.
While House Republicans are divided on helping Ukraine, Markarova said she sees no difference in the new GOP majority in the chamber. He admits, however, that there are members he needs to “talk to more.”
There is a growing divide in 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 was not a “core interest” of the United States, though he later called Putin a “criminal in battle.” Former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, who entered the race in February, said at a town hall that the conflict in Ukraine is “a war about freedom. And it’s a war we have to win.
Markarova hopes that the growing political debate will not weaken support in general.
“The fight we are fighting today is not only a fight in Ukraine, it [an] It’s the American people’s fight, and it’s the fight of anyone who believes in the same values,” he said.
Last month, the International Criminal Court filed war crime charges against Putin for allegedly plotting 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 an arrest warrant.
Putin and Lvova-Belova have denied the allegations, but according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, more than 16,000 forced transfers have taken place, and the real number “could be much higher,” he said last week. month.
“I can say this: They were kidnapped. Not allegedly,” said Markarova when asked about the arrest warrant. He told CNN that Russia has been doing this since the start of the invasion last year.
“That’s why it’s very important to release it faster, because we don’t know how many people have been killed or kidnapped,” he said.
According to a report from the US State Department-backed Conflict Observatory, run by the Yale Humanitarian Research Lab, the Russian government is holding thousands of children in Ukraine in camps intended to indoctrinate them with messages that pro-Russia and put them in foster care. or adoption in Russia.
“[They’re] essentially torturing the children, telling them to deny who they are and telling them they are Russian,” Markarova said.
The 46-year-old mother of four told CNN that she’s not usually an angry person, but this made her “very angry.”
“This is a criminal act, punishable by the harshest sentences. This is what justice looks like,” he said.
Markarova is married to businessman Danylo Volynets, whom she credits with supporting her no matter what.
“It’s harder to do this when your partner doesn’t understand you or doesn’t support you,” says Markarova. “Strong men – my husband is definitely one of them – I don’t think I’m afraid of strong women.”
These strong women, he believes, also make great diplomats.
“I think women are peacemakers. Of course, I shouldn’t generalize because not all men are the same, not all women are the same,” said Markarova. “But in general, I think women always try to make a partnership, have a friendly relationship… and it’s very important.”
The first female Ukrainian ambassador to the US, Markarova said she formed a sisterhood with other female ambassadors.
“We meet regularly. We always talk. We support each other. And I think it’s very important for women to support women,” Markarova said. “The challenges we face are sometimes different.”
“Regardless of the fact whether you are the top CEO or top positions, most people still expect it to be [the] women who have to take care of the children or have to take care of the house,” he said, adding that men are not often asked questions such as “Can you do it? You know, you have small children. ”
The ambassador said that he learned a lot from his children – two of whom are studying here in Washington.
“They and the older girls, they understand what this fight is. They should probably grow faster this year,” Markarova said. “They have classmates from Kyiv who have gone through terrible experiences this year .”
Her children are not her only source of inspiration. The Embassy of Ukraine is in the Forrest-Marbury House, where the first president of the United States, George Washington, decided the borders of the new capital of the country.
“We’re very proud, to be honest, especially now that we are fighting for our independence. Owning a building that has seen people fight [US] the freedom is amazing,” said Markarova.
It is a connection that highlights the current situation in his country for the ambassador.
“The Russian Empire is still trying to seize the territories around it, but freedom is winning. Ukraine is winning, and we must make the victory decisive and achieve peace,” he said.