A dedicated group of Ukrainian Americans in the DC area gathered at the Lincoln Memorial and called on the US and its allies to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin with a no-fly zone, more efficient arms shipments and increased aid to refugees.
A month into a devastating war, the message Ukrainians delivered Sunday in front of the Lincoln Memorial was simple: “Close the skies on Ukraine.”
As the bloodshed mounts by the hour and Russian weapons raze once-busy cities to rubble, Ukrainian Americans in the DC region rallied at the Lincoln Memorial to urge the US and its allies to confront Russian President Vladimir Putin with a no-fly zone , deliveries of more efficient weapons and increased aid to refugees.
“President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently declared that truth is our weapon, our brave armed forces are engaged and will defend every inch of our territory. But we need all the support we can get, in terms of arms, financial and humanitarian aid,” Oksana Markarova, Ambassador of Ukraine to the United States, told hundreds of Ukrainians and their supporters.
“It took the world too long to understand that Putin was a criminal and a murderer. This war shook off the last facade of decency and revealed the grim reality of what the Russian Federation is today. It showed that Putin is a war criminal, a mass murderer and a butcher.”
When Ukrainians last demonstrated at the Lincoln Memorial in late February, they saw the war as a worst-case scenario, the horrors of which could be averted by a Western commitment to tough sanctions and arms aid. That nightmare became a reality days later, as cruise missiles rained down on airfields and Russian tanks breached border checkpoints. Millions have fled the violence and tens of thousands have been killed in the four weeks since.
The war may be raging thousands of miles away, but for Volodymyr Liashenko, who lives in the DC area, Sunday’s rally was an opportunity to speak up for friends and family back home. Liashenko, who hails from the eastern Ukrainian city of Kharkiv, says his own parents narrowly escaped the destruction of their home amid intense Russian shelling.
“They moved to another city after a week. It was early March and the next day there was a bomb in her apartment,” Lyashenko said. “I check them out as often as I can. I call my friends every day and ask them: How is everything? Do you have electricity and water?”
As the war nears a bloody stalemate, the DC region’s Ukrainian diaspora noticeably shifted its Sunday news to match Zelenskyy’s pleas for a NATO-led no-fly zone — an idea the Biden administration continues to oppose as it a confrontation between US and Russian forces feared would lead to a global conflict.
Aside from a no-fly zone, the organizers of the event — which included nonprofits and advocacy groups like United Help Ukraine, Razom for Ukraine and the US-Ukraine Foundation — called on the US government to deliver more efficient air defense systems, anti-ship weapons and fighter jets to help Ukrainians could protect their own skies.
“I wish they would do more, but I don’t know if that’s possible or how that would affect the rest of the world,” Liashenko added. “But in my opinion, World War III has already begun.”
#Now: DC’s Lincoln Memorial, just over a month after Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. When Ukrainians last gathered here, four days before the war began, they called for tough sanctions and weapons to deter Putin. Their demands this afternoon: “Close the skies.” pic.twitter.com/8ImSMoWSL3
— Alejandro Alvarez (@aletweetsnews) March 27, 2022
Several of Sunday’s speakers also reinforced calls for Russia’s economic isolation and painted a picture of a financial struggle being fought on the ground. Maryland Del. Kirill Reznik, a Kyiv-born Montgomery County Democrat, boasted about new legislation that would pull the state government’s pension plans out of Russia.
Reznik supported a resolution in the Maryland General Assembly expressing his solidarity with the people of Ukraine. Earlier this month, Maryland also became the first state to declare a gas tax exemption after a federal moratorium on Russian oil imports; State leaders called the import ban a necessary step to counter Putin’s aggression.
A rally organizer later joked that he would soon be moving to Maryland in gratitude for their support.
Read more: Nations are ‘united’ to cut Russian oil and gas imports
“We can still do a lot more. We are a small state. But if every state did what Maryland did, we’d be a lot further along,” Reznik said. “I urge every one of my colleagues in every state legislature and every governor in every governor’s seat in this country to do what we have done: divest yourself of Russian investments, review your contracts, and if ties are found, terminate them. “
Reznik drew a common thread between Maryland’s role in the American Revolution—for those, according to popular traditionGeneral George Washington gave it the name “Old Line State” – and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We got that nickname during the Revolution when a number of Maryland militias held their ground at the Battle of Long Island,” Reznik said. “Today there is a new line. This line is in Ukraine. This line withstands forces that have no intention of stopping in Ukraine… Ukraine is the new Maryland. It is the new lineage that withstands the forces of tyranny.”
Hundreds of people stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial for three hours. War material rolls showed Ukrainian cities crumbling under Russian air raids; the sound of air raid sirens from Kyiv echoed briefly through the reflecting pool. A haunting and graphic video titled “Close the Sky Lullaby” edited from images of bombed playgrounds and children in subway stations.
Behind the podium hung dozens of portraits of children killed in Russian bombing raids, QR codes for donations to refugees, bunches of sunflowers and signs comparing Putin to Adolf Hitler and the devil.
Not all who attended Sunday’s rally were Ukrainian or of Ukrainian descent. Some, identifiable by the Georgian and Polish flags displayed in the square, had either experienced Russian aggression before or feared it might be next.
Others, like Ashley Barendse of Reston, Virginia, saw it as an opportunity for solidarity.
“I’m not Ukrainian, but I’ve been to Ukraine before. I went to Kyiv and I went to Chernobyl. So when Putin invaded, it arrived very close to home. That’s why I wanted to come out today and show some support,” Barendse said. “It was heartbreaking. It was awful to watch. I basically stay on Twitter all day just to be a witness and to help uplift and spread the word in my own way.”
Barendse said she is helping Ukrainian Defense Fund, which supplies and supports the exclusively volunteer Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine. She also keeps in touch with Ukrainians she met abroad, including in Cherson, where there were residents protesting against Russian occupation met with tear gas, rubber bullets and gunfire.
“One said he was going to take his daughter out before it got violent the other day. My other contact bought supplies, he told me yesterday he bought some candles and toilet paper for a village in the nearby region that has been without electricity since March 2.”
Barendse backed calls for the Biden administration to provide better weapons to bolster Ukraine’s armed forces.
“I understand the reluctance to shut Heaven down, but if we don’t then, by God, give them the tools to do it themselves.” They have already declared their willingness, so we must do everything we can and support them.”