Ukraine has weathered eight years of bloody conflict and political upheaval — and on Sunday, the D.C. region’s Ukrainian ex-pats memorialized thousands already lost amid warnings of an even greater conflict on the horizon.
With U.S. officials observing Russia’s forces inching closer to Ukraine’s border, Ukrainian American groups organized a day of solidarity with their homeland calling for more significant Western pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin and more weapons shipments as a deterrent.
“The world needs to reflect on the genuine evil that Putin and the Kremlin are displaying in this unjustified war against Ukraine … it begs a response,” Nadia McConnell, president of the US-Ukraine Foundation, told the hundreds gathered near the Lincoln Memorial.
Sunday’s rally drew hundreds for an eventual march to the White House. It evolved out of a vigil held yearly by the region’s Ukrainian Americans to memorialize the “Heavenly Hundred” — their term for protesters killed during Ukraine’s fiery Euromaidan revolution in 2014, seeking closer integration between the former Soviet state and the Western world.
In the months that followed the ousting of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian separatist movement — bolstered by military and logistical support from Moscow — captured broad swathes of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, launching a protracted conflict that would also see unmarked Russian forces invade and capture the Crimean peninsula.
That conflict persists to this day — and many Ukrainians, as well as Western analysts, fear Putin may be keen on unfreezing it as part of a ploy to destabilize Europe and reestablish a Soviet-era sphere of influence.
Candles set out in the shape of Ukraine’s shield-and-trident coat of arms marked fallen protesters and soldiers on Sunday afternoon, as dozens of Ukrainian flags hoisted high in the air cast a golden hue on the memorial’s steps.
Nearly three hours of speakers shared a common demand for President Biden to embrace strict sanctions on Russia if a full-scale war were to break out — including a firm commitment from the U.S. and its allies to financially punish the Kremlin by blocking the Nord Stream 2 pipeline linking Russian natural gas to Europe.
The U.S. and Great Britain have also been supplying defense aid in the form of anti-tank missile and radar systems for Ukraine’s armed forces. But according to the rally’s organizers, what shipments have been sent are insufficient in the face of what they say is a rapidly-modernizing Russian army with an increasingly ambitious leadership, more capable now than when the fighting began eight years ago.
Echoing that sentiment alongside Ukrainian diplomats and activists was William Taylor, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine for the Bush and Obama administrations and as acting ambassador under Trump.
“Even if Putin doesn’t invade Ukraine now, next week or next month … he won’t give up on trying to subordinate Ukraine and trying to bring Ukraine back into the Russian world,” Taylor told the crowd to applause. “We need to provide support for Ukraine over the long term — military, political and financial.”
Following the rally, several hundred people set out from the Lincoln Memorial on a short march to the White House. Biden had only hours earlier convened a rare weekend meeting of the National Security Council to discuss the unfolding crisis.
Ukrainians, joined by members of the local Kazakhstani, Belarusian, Polish, Lithuanian and Baltic communities, marched across Constitution Avenue and up 17th Street in Northwest D.C.
They were united in their chants: “Sanction Putin now,” “Stop Russian aggression,” and “Slava Ukraini” — a Ukrainian-language salute meaning “Glory to Ukraine.”
As the sun set over Lafayette Square, they stood outside the White House holding signs including “Putin, keep your bloody hands off Ukraine” and “Yes, we can stop Putin together.” Some pictured caricatures of Putin alongside Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler.
“We believe in our army, we have the best army, we know that they will be able to protect us,” a Ukrainian expat said. “All of them are ready to defend the country … and believe me, Ukraine will resist. We will not go under occupation anymore.”