August 2, 2022

Zelenska Comes to Washington

Olena Zelenska, First Lady of Ukraine, Comes to Washington

By: Teresa Esquivel

After being forced into hiding for the first months of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, First Lady Olena Zelenska appeared for the first time in front of the camera on Mother’s Day 2022, greeting American First Lady Jill Biden in the city of Uzhhorod in western Ukraine. At the time, Zelenska thanked Biden for her bravery in making the unannounced trip and taking the time to witness the devastation of so many Ukrainians firsthand. When Jill Biden invited Zelenska to make a journey of her own to the United States, Zelenska accepted, and began her visit on July 18 with clear intentions: "Mrs. Biden visited Ukraine in May in order to see and communicate with those who lost their homes and loved ones due to the war. Now it's my turn to speak in the US about Ukrainian needs in our resistance and fight against the aggressor."

Among the Ukrainian First Lady’s first stops were the U.S. Department of State and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). These meetings came only four days after Russia’s targeted attack on civilians in Vinnytsia that killed 26 and injured over 90 more. According to State Department Spokesperson Ned Price, Zelenska emphasized in her conversation with Blinken the ever-deteriorating quality of life in Ukraine. 

The murder of innocent civilians is only one of many injustices suffered by Ukrainians due to Russia’s offensive. Billions of dollars worth of infrastructure has been reduced to rubble or otherwise made inoperative—a fact which Secretary of State Antony Blinken also acknowledged and condemned during his meeting with Ukraine’s First Lady. Blinken and the Biden administration have earned a  reputation for being non-interventionist, weathering criticism that the U.S. government has not provided sufficient material support to Ukraine’s combat efforts. However, Secretary Blinken assured Zelenska of the United States’ “comprehensive and enduring commitment to support Ukraine’s victory in Russia’s unjust and unprovoked war.”

At USAID, conversations heavily centered around the physical and psychological cost of Russia’s invasion paid at the expense of both civilians and the military in Ukraine. Highlights of the meeting included USAID Administrator Samantha Power’s acknowledgment of the heroism of those medical professionals providing healthcare to Ukrainians at the front lines. Powers pointed to the $1.7 billion of assistance USAID sent earlier this year to the Ukrainian government in order to address public health crises as a sign of the organization’s prioritization of the physical well-being of struggling Ukrainians. When Zelenska conveyed distress over the state of mental health in Ukraine, Administrator Powers reminded the First Lady of USAID’s continuous work to increase access to the mental health/suicide hotline Lifeline Ukraine across the country. Though several priorities and projects were discussed by Powers and Zelenska, the meeting in whole demonstrated a strong relationship between USAID and forces on the ground in Ukraine. Spokesperson Shejal Pulivarti stated that “Administrator Power and First Lady Zelenska agreed to work together closely to address Ukraine’s urgent healthcare needs while continuing to plan for Ukraine’s long-term recovery.”

Thereafter, Zelenska visited the Holodomor Memorial to Victims of the Ukrainian Famine-Genocide of 1932–1933 in central Washington. The structure honors those who lost their lives as a result of Stalin’s manufactured famine, known as the Holodomor (meaning “death by hunger” in Ukrainian), which killed an estimated 4 million Soviet Ukrainians. Fittingly, the First Lady met with members of the Ukrainian diaspora in the United States at this somber location. In her subsequent tweets about the experience, Zelenska lauded Ukrainians in America for the support have shown in the past 5 months for their homeland and drew parallels between Putin’s invasion and Stalin’s Holodomor: “Hundreds of thousands wheat spikes engraved in bronze - how the memorial in Washington to the victims of Holodomor in [Ukraine] (1932-1933) looks like. Each wheat spike – someone's fate. This tragically resonates with our present, when Russia is trying to destroy Ukrainians again.”

The First Lady’s itinerary ended with a visit to the Ukraine House, where she met with participants of the organization’s prosthetics program, which serves Ukrainian citizens (often youth) who have lost limbs at the hands of Russian forces.

Only on the second day of Zelenska’s visit were the first ladies of Ukraine and the United States reunited. Outside the White House, Jill Biden offered Zelenska a hug and a bouquet of sunflowers (the national flower of Ukraine) in a show of solidarity between the two nations. Zelenska was welcomed by numerous members of the Biden/Harris team (President Biden himself), as well as Oksana Markarova, Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S. The White House made a statement regarding topics discussed in the private meeting, including the cultivation of a lasting friendship between the two states and ways the U.S. can help alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine as the war rages on. This meeting came after Zelenska was awarded the Dissident Human Rights Award by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation on behalf of the courageous people of Ukraine.

July 20, 2022 marked a historic day for Zelenska, who addressed Congress in an unprecedented manner as the First Lady of a foreign country. Among the more resonant aspects of her speech was the frank manner she carried in expressing her intentions: “Usually the wives of presidents are exclusively engaged in peaceful affairs…I’m asking for weapons.”

Zelenska projected an air of both unparalleled strength and vulnerability, appealing to Congress not simply as a First Lady engaged in diplomatic business, but as a wife and mother who simply wishes “to be able to tell their child, go to sleep peacefully, there will be no more air strikes, no more missile strikes.” She told the stories of victims ranging from newborn babies to 96-year-old concentration camp survivors, all whose lives had been lost during war. 

Zelenska left Congress with a plea for more material aid to defend Ukraine, and there ended her 3-day trip to the United States. Since her visit, no new congressional legislation has been introduced regarding increased aid to Ukraine, though a bipartisan bill which looks to officially designate Russia as a terrorist state (officially a “state sponsor of terrorism”) is reportedly in the works, and 3 Republican senators have introduced legislation sanctioning insurers of ships that transport Russian oil to China.

Regardless of the path of congressional proceedings, First Lady Olena Zelenska left the United States with a greater awareness of the conditions in Ukraine, an impressive show of camaraderie between nations, and a human face to the war that politics had rendered impersonal nearly from the beginning.