Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, who survived an assassination attempt by poisoning in 2004 before becoming the country’s third president, had a simple message Monday during a visit to Utah:

“Ukraine will be free.”

He expressed certainty that Ukraine will win the war against Russian President Vladimir Putin, noting the 54 countries that are supporting Ukraine make up 75% of the world GDP, compared to Russia’s 2%.

“Of course we have no doubts, together we will win,” he said through his translator, Maryna Antonova.

His comments came when Yushchenko, alongside his wife, Kateryna, met with Utah officials and business leaders in Salt Lake City at the World Trade Center Utah’s downtown office Monday afternoon.

Earlier in the day, the former president, who served from 2005 to 2010, also met with the Deseret News editorial board. His visit concluded with a benefit dinner Monday evening at the Grand America hosted by the Idaho-based charity To Ukraine With Love, and sponsored by Zions Bank, Wasatch Group, Gardner and The Dell Loy Hansen Family Foundation. Utah real estate developer Dell Loy Hansen has taken a personal interest in aiding Ukraine and has committed millions in donations to help build dozens of homes in destroyed neighborhoods through To Ukraine With Love.

Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, among other state officials, attended Monday night’s benefit dinner and exchanged words of support with the former president.

“It’s an honor to have him here,” Cox told the Deseret News in an interview Monday evening. “But also a helpful reminder to all of us of the destruction that is happening in Ukraine, but the hope that is there as well.”

Cox pointed to his recent call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his focus on ensuring the “rebuilding effort starts now, not just when the war is over.” Cox noted “many generous Utahns” are helping with rebuilding efforts. But as the war persists, he urged Utahns to keep the charitable work coming.

“I’d like to see Utah continue to support the work the same way we did in the first couple of weeks,” Cox said. “It’s easy to forget as it drags on and resources are being spent, but these are real people and this is truly good versus evil. And I believe that history will smile kindly on states like Utah who have been so generous.”

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During each gathering, Yushchenko described both the challenges and the hope of the war-torn country still fighting to suppress Russia’s invasion that began more than a year ago. Ukraine has been at war with Russia since 2014, but has been fighting off a full-scale invasion since Feb. 24, 2022.

Yushchenko urged Ukraine’s allies to continue supporting his country — but to also think about “the future of Russia after we win this war. ... If Russia stays the way it is, it means that we fail in whatever goals we are setting for ourselves. With Russia the way it is, no country in the world can safely plan its future,” he said.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko and his wife Kateryna Yushchenko walk out of the World Trade Center Utah offices in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

“The victory in the war of Ukraine is, first of all, the victory of the free world,” he said, “and creating everything that is necessary to make sure that Russia never again becomes the source of aggression, the source of instability, and the source of war.”

While applauding continued efforts to send aid to Ukraine — whether it’s food or supplies to millions of displaced Ukrainians — Yushchenko also urged Ukraine’s allies in Utah and across the world to also help the country build itself back up even stronger than before the invasion.

Economically, Yushchenko said Ukraine has enormous potential to expand its grain processing and exports to help farmers build their businesses and, therefore, the country’s entire economy. He urged the U.S. to share its expertise, technology and exporting capabilities to help Ukraine access a larger market.

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“I’m dreaming big, but this is something that we can all do and something that is worth attention of a country with such advanced technology, resources and knowledge as the United States,” he said.

Yushchenko’s visit comes ahead of an upcoming trade mission, during which Utah officials are expected to visit Ukraine and meet with humanitarian organizations as well as government officials.

Franz Kolb, international trade and diplomacy director for the Utah Governor’s Office of Economic Opportunity, welcomed Yushchenko to the Beehive State.

“We want you to know that the state of Utah is committed to Ukraine,” Kolb said at the lunch hosted by World Trade Center Utah. “I’d like to not just welcome you. We are a state of action.”

Yushchenko also applauded the work of To Ukraine With Love, a nonprofit that has fielded millions in donations to bring everything from sleeping bags to hot meals to displaced Ukrainians. The charity has also built modular homes to house families in hard-hit villages near Kyiv.

“This is what is the most important for millions of people living in Ukraine and suffering from the consequences of the war,” he told the Deseret News’ editorial board. “What to eat? Where to live? Will schools reopen again? How can we get access to health services? How to bring families together that are separated by time and distance? How to come back to the houses that are destroyed. ... All these issues are on everyone’s agenda in Ukraine today.”

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Yushchenko, at the conclusion of his remarks, offered a blue and yellow flag to Utah officials, which he signed with a black marker. On the flag next to his signature, he also drew a sketch of a traditional Ukrainian home.

“This is the ideal Ukraine we all have in our minds,” he said. “A country with beautiful houses.”

Utah officials gifted the former president a crystal honeypot in the shape of a beehive, symbolizing the state’s motto of industry and collaboration.

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko speaks in Salt Lake City.
Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko speaks to a group gathered at the World Trade Center Utah office in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Getting Putin out of the U.N.?

Yushchenko told the Deseret News editorial board that he believes Putin should be pushed out of the United Nations Security Council, describing it as “one of my personal goals.”

“I think there are many reasons to do this, to push Russia out, plus we do know that many lawyers of the world, including American lawyers, are working hard on making sure that this happens.”

At the time of his presidency, Yushchenko said he dealt with Putin “one-on-one” at times but they covered “important issues that were on the bilateral agenda” between Russia and Ukraine.

Yushchenko noted he’s “always been a very open opponent” to Russian policies and politics, but at the time “we did deal with each other as partners. I did feel that there was respect towards Ukraine and me as a person speaking on behalf of Ukraine.”

“What was going (on) in Putin’s head, I am not going to comment, but at least we had a dialogue. I also understand I was probably the most undesirable person in the position of Ukraine that Putin ever wanted to see. But we still dealt with him and discussed whatever issues were important for both countries at the time.”

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Yushchenko won the Ukrainian presidency after the Orange Revolution, or a series of nationwide protests throughout Ukraine that challenged election results that were in favor of his opponent, Viktor Yanukovych. The protests led to the original results being annulled, and Ukraine’s Supreme Court ordering a revote. The final results showed a victory for Yushchenko with about 52% of the vote.

Yushchenko said Putin congratulated his opponent three times, but still ultimately “had to deal with me.” He said he doesn’t remember Putin ever congratulating him on his election, but “it’s not about private relations, because I was representing my country. My job as president was to protect interests of my country and discuss issues that were important for our bilateral agenda.” 

Yushchenko applauded Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his administration “in how well they communicate the needs of Ukraine” to other countries.

Why Utahns should care

Yushchenko said what’s happening in Ukraine, no matter where you live, “affects everyone globally.”

“The question is always who is next? What nation will be attacked?” he said. “The problem is that Putin wants to revise the whole security arrangement of the world, he wants to have a larger sphere of influence.”

Yushchenko said Putin wants the Soviet Union back.

“This is why I say that if you live in Utah ... this all comes to you. This is all about protecting security in the people of Utah as well. Because what we fight for in Ukraine is to make sure that Russia is not imposing its chaos, imposing its brutality, (and) does not influence policies and security arrangements for any other country of the world.”

He said Ukraine’s allies must ask, “What do we do then to the source of aggression? What do we do then with making sure something like that never happens again?”

“This is where it becomes very complicated. If we are all together as allies in this war, if it is OK with us that after what Russia did to Ukraine and to other parts of the world they can still be a country like they are and they can still preserve this regime and the influence and Russia stays the source of aggression and the source of security challenges and the source of instability for the whole world, it will let Russia continue to do what they do after the victory of Ukraine,” Yushchenko said.

“I think we all lose.”

Former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko draws a picture on a Ukrainian flag that he is gifted to the World Trade Center Utah in Salt Lake City on Monday, April 17, 2023. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News