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Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S. outlines consequences if Western funds end

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

First, though, to the war in Ukraine. Next month will mark two years since Russian tanks and troops rolled across the border and launched an all-out assault on Ukraine. How and when that war might end remain very much open questions. Consider that last year, 2023, ended with one of the most intense Russian bombardments yet. Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy says Russia fired 500 missiles and drones at Ukraine in just five days. Dozens of people were killed. And now Ukraine is facing yet another challenge - Western support and funding for the war are fading. Oksana Markarova is Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S. She joins me now. Ambassador, I'm glad to speak with you again.

OKSANA MARKAROVA: Thank you, Mary Louise, for having me again - and always happy to speak to you.

KELLY: Let's begin with this prisoner swap yesterday, the first one in months and the biggest one yet. Yesterday Ukraine and Russia exchanged the most prisoners of war since the war began - 230 Ukrainians released, 248 Russians. How did this deal come to be?

MARKAROVA: Yes. We are very happy that - after five months since Moscow actually frozen any talks and exchanges of the prisoners, that we were able to do it because we never stopped trying. We are very glad that our ombudsman and all the people involved were able to move ahead and that 230 Ukrainians are back home.

KELLY: And who are they, the Ukrainians who are now headed home?

MARKAROVA: Yes. So among these people, you know, we had 48, actually, individuals who were considered missing until they were exchanged. We had six illegally imprisoned civilians. They were not even involved in the military operations. We had five women. We had seven defenders of the Snake Island - very famous guys - as well as a number of Mariupol defenders and National Guard soldiers and some also soldiers who were captured at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, which, as you remember, was illegally occupied, attacked by Russia at the beginning of this full-fledged war - so quite a diverse group of Ukrainian defenders from different regiments.

KELLY: Does this open the door in any way to a breakthrough, even to talking with Russia on any other front?

MARKAROVA: Well, unfortunately, I wouldn't say so. It's a separate discussions which a number of countries and organizations are helping us with. But, no, unfortunately, as we see from the deadly attacks by the missiles and everything that Russia does on the battlefield, they intend to kill all of us and destroy Ukraine - unfortunately, remains unchanged.

KELLY: So I do want to ask a question or two about the state of the battlefield today. You and I are, of course, speaking in January. And I'm remembering that last winter, last January, Russia was trying very hard to take down Ukraine's electrical grid. Are they trying again?

MARKAROVA: Well, they're trying to destroy whatever they can reach out. That includes, of course, the energy, but it's not limited to that. Like, last year, yes, they not only tried. They did create a lot of damage last winter. We are much better prepared for this winter thanks to our work but also thanks to our partners. You know, we have much more air defense. And we have prepared our energy system. It's more resilient. It's better-protected.

KELLY: So let me turn you to the wobbling support from the West. What do you think is driving the erosion of support for Ukraine?

MARKAROVA: Oh, that's, you know - first of all, we have to keep informing people, you know? In any democracy, the parliaments, the administrations, elected leaders support what people tell them to support and what people agree to support. And I think it's very important to continue informing people about not only the state of the war in Ukraine but why it is important to win for all of us, not only for Ukrainians but why, for everyone who believes in freedom, it is important to win while it's still in Ukraine and not to allow Putin, like Hitler many, many years ago, to create another huge war, which will then drag everyone into it.

KELLY: But to take the state of affairs here in Washington today, as you know, the White House has asked for more than $60 billion to help Ukraine. That request is stalled in Congress. There's no more money coming unless lawmakers sign off on it. Are you hopeful that the U.S. will eventually come through with more money?

MARKAROVA: Well, we critically need it. And we critically need it in order to be able to win it faster so that, again, U.S. and other allies will not need to spend much more if Putin is emboldened and attack one of the NATO allies. And, yes, you know, I know it's difficult. I know in democracy, the discussions are always very - sometimes lengthy, you know? And as you know, the Ukrainian package - it's not just the Ukrainian package. It's together with the help to Israel and with so much debated border issues.

KELLY: Yes.

MARKAROVA: And in all my conversations - and, again, thank you for informants through the radio now, American public - we are just asking our partners and the lawmakers here to find a decision and move ahead as quick as possible because we do need the support yesterday.

KELLY: Just spell out what the consequences would be if the money dries up. What are the consequences for your country?

MARKAROVA: Well, it's even horrific to think about what consequences will be if there is no further support because, again, Ukrainians will keep fighting. And we have enough people who are willing to fight. But, you know, we do rely on our partners, on the U.S. and other 50-plus countries which U.S. has gathered in the so-called Ramstein coalition that provides us with the capabilities. Without this support, it will be very, very difficult, if not, you know, impossible to win. And we need to win.

KELLY: You know, two years ago, when Russia first invaded, Americans were all in. You know from driving around Washington and other parts of the U.S. Ukrainian flags were everywhere and in every other window, every other house. That is gone. And so I wonder what case you would make to Americans listening that this fight is still our fight, is still a fight important for Americans to be all in on.

MARKAROVA: Well, you know, it's not gone. When I drive around Washington, D.C., when I travel - I recently went to Minnesota. Before I was in Ohio. And the Ukrainian flags are still there. And every time I talk to people, I'm yet to find anyone who would say, no, we want to support Russia, and we think Russia should win. You know, it's the right thing to do to support Ukraine now so we can win it together and return to much peaceful world.

KELLY: Oksana Markarova is Ukraine's ambassador to the U.S. Ambassador, thank you. Happy New Year.

MARKAROVA: Happy New Year to you. And thank you to all Americans for the support. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Erika Ryan
Erika Ryan is a producer for All Things Considered. She joined NPR after spending 4 years at CNN, where she worked for various shows and CNN.com in Atlanta and Washington, D.C. Ryan began her career in journalism as a print reporter covering arts and culture. She's a graduate of the University of South Carolina, and currently lives in Washington, D.C., with her dog, Millie.
Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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