WASHINGTON – Over one 150 activists and supporters of Ukraine protested outside the White House on January 29 in an effort to demonstrate their backing of Kyiv amid Russia’s buildup of some 140,000 troops along Ukraine’s border.
The Ukrainian supporters were joined by a multitude of protestors hailing from Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, the United States and the Baltic Republics.
The wide range of activists joined together to show a unified front of citizens firmly against Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine and Russia’s neighbors. Their overriding goals was to convince the White House and U.S. President Joe Biden to take a hard line against Russia, which has waged a war in eastern Ukraine that first began in 2014.
The activists outside the White House came with three clear goals for the Biden administration. First, they sought to express the unity of the communities of the Baltic States, Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and the Free Russia Foundation. Second, they demanded meaningful and potent sanctions as a deterrent against further Russian aggression. And, finally, they called on the White House to immediately provide Ukraine with defensive weapons.
The protestors, however, did not specifically call for military intervention by NATO or an escalation of the conflict.
“We don’t want bloodshed. We want peace. We want prosperity for Ukraine. We want to see democratic Ukraine now,” said Marina Baydyuk, a community activist and leader.
Despite the continued buildup of Russian forces, now numbering nearly 140,000 soldiers, the U.S. and Russia have remained engaged in diplomatic talks.
Diplomatic efforts by NATO allies to address the crisis included a trip by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to Kyiv for talks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The U.N. Security Council convened several times in January to discuss the ongoing war, with Russia denying any responsibility for the current situation.
The event outside the White House was spearheaded by Yaro Hetman, who helped plan the protest and was also the first speaker.
Microphone in hand, Mr. Hetman recalled World War II and the policy of appeasement taken by the Western Allies against Axis powers in their aggression against Manchuria and Czechoslovakia.
“We all know how that ended,” said Mr. Hetman poignantly, drawing parallels between the current geopolitical situation and the situation of the late 1930s.
“The lesson here is this, when dictatorial regimes start taking actions like this, initially it’s like treating cancer. The earlier you start opposing cancer, the less costly and less painful the treatment. By allowing these two dictators [Hideki Tojo and Adolf Hitler] to continue their actions, it only led to a further problem,” Mr. Hetman said.
Mr. Hetman then aimed his appeals directly to the American people, holding up the example of America’s revolutionary struggle against the British, saying it was akin to Ukraine’s struggle against Russia.
Mr. Hetman noted the vital role U.S. allies – namely France, which provided arms and munitions – played in assuring the United States victory against the British.
“But there was a brave man from France, the Marquis de Lafayette,” Mr. Hetman said as he stood in the square named after the Frenchman, Lafayette Square.
“He was only a 19-year-old lieutenant. He went back to France after seeing what was happening in the United States, and he petitioned the King of France to support the United States,” Mr. Hetman said.
“Look at him alone and the impact he was able to make,” Mr. Hetman said in an effort to inspire the crowd.
“The Biden administration has a choice. Either take a strong stance now and stop some of the aggression, or wait,” Mr. Hetman said. “Wait until the consequences become more and more serious. And wait until the way to solve this problem becomes more and more difficult and more and more painful.”
The appeal for increased arms to Ukraine aligns with current U.S. and allied policies. Since December, Western powers have increased military and non-military aid to Ukraine. Three air shipments arrived from the U.S. in the past week as part of a new $200 million package which included antitank weapons. The U.S. has also said it would transfer five Russian-made Mi-17 transport helicopters to Ukraine.
Last week, British military planes ferried light anti-armor weapons systems to Kyiv. Meanwhile, the Baltic nations of Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia have shipped, with Washington’s permission, American-made Javelin anti-tank weapons and Stinger air-defense systems, U.S. officials said.
Viktoriia Savchuk, a student from Ukraine who is currently completing doctoral degree in communications at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., was one of the Ukrainian voices in the crowd.
“My family in Ukraine is trying to live a normal life, but there is still a lot of anxiety,” Ms. Savchuk said. “I was in Ukraine last week, and everything feels normal, but it’s not quite normal. I feel like people are trying to talk less about the war, but everyone understands what’s happening, and they’re worried. It’s difficult to predict [what will happen].”
She added that there isn’t a massive panic. Instead, people there understand there is a mobilization of troops and people are checking shelters, helping the military and joining municipal self-defense forces.
“We saw what happened in 2014. We didn’t believe that things like that would happen in the 21st century, that someone could invade another country in Europe,” Ms. Savchuk said. “But it happened. That’s why I don’t want to underestimate what Russia’s doing right now near the Ukrainian border.”
Many at the event also emphasized their gratefulness toward the Biden administration for its recent support of Ukraine.
Yana Chapilo, a current Fulbright Fellowship student from Ukraine studying at the University of Maryland in College Park, Md., was one of many who expressed their gratitude.
“We gathered to show our support to our fellow Ukrainians and also to show the government of the United States and President Biden that we are grateful for their support,” Ms. Chapilo told The Ukrainian Weekly.
Both in geopolitics and at the protest, the multi-national response to Russia’s war in Ukraine has become more visible as tensions have risen. Yet many, such as Georgian activist Giorgi Lomaia, stood out at the protest as an international voice that has steadfastly supported Ukraine since 2014.
“Today we have gathered in front of the White House to support free and independent Ukraine in the face of an imminent Russian aggression,” Mr. Lomaia said in his speech to protestors outside the White House.
“Not long ago, Georgia was in the same shoes. In 2008 Georgia wanted to be free and independent and dictate its own fate. And Russia invaded us,” Mr. Lomaiev said. “It is time for the Western World to stand tall and stand firm against the Russian aggression.”
Mr. Lomaia is a member of Georgian Americans for Progress, a Georgian diaspora organization in the United States. He worked with United Help Ukraine to organize the joint protest outside the White House after attending a recent protest outside the Russian Embassy.
The shared struggles against Russia unite the Georgian and Ukrainian people in purpose, Mr. Lomaia said.
“The brotherhood is strong, and it’s unshakable,” Mr. Lomaia told The Weekly.
“The Georgian community stands with the Ukrainian people. Millions of Georgian men and women are thinking and praying about Ukraine. Hundreds of Georgians have fought alongside Ukrainians and have given up their lives in Ukraine, as have Ukrainians in Georgia in the 1990s and 2008. Please do not judge Georgia based on our government’s reaction and silence,” Mr. Lomaia urged the crowd here.
Mr. Lomaia further spoke during an interview with The Weekly of the shame he feels for his government’s silence on the events.
That silence “misrepresents what a majority of Georgians want” and it demonstrates that “Georgia is being brought back into the Russian sphere of influence,” Mr. Lomaia said.
“It’s a past no one wants to go back to,” he said.