In a room just down the hall from the expansive ballroom at Salt Lake City’s Grand America Hotel, Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova sat down with the Deseret News for an extended conversation in the shadow of the American, Ukrainian and Utah flags. She has stories to tell.

“We have already passed ten years since the initial invasion. And in that first phase of the war, after the attack in 2014, we lost 15,000 people,” she said. It led to the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the loss of some territory in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions of Ukraine.

Now, in the 779 days of war since Russia crossed the border into Ukraine in February 2022 — a number top-of-mind for her and repeated often — more than 12 million people have been displaced, with 6 million now outside of Ukraine, including some who traveled away from the war zone to Utah.

Her stories included family: Decades ago, during the years of the Soviet empire, her father-in-law was sent to the Gulag in Siberia for 11 years; her mother-in-law was also arrested and sent to prison in Siberia, where the couple met. They were both sent to Siberia for activities in support of Ukraine.

She also tells stories of Ukrainian resolve, calling the don’t-give-up efforts of the populace a matter of “dignity and freedom” for Ukrainians. And she shared a personal account of her own Christian faith and reconciliation with God about how something so unjust as war could occur. That reconciliation came with its own request: “We need more prayers and more weapons.”

The occasion of her visit to the state was the One Utah Summit, Gov. Spencer Cox’s gathering of business leaders designed to celebrate Utah’s achievements, provide an economic snapshot, and bring synergy and connection between the state’s government and business community.

Minutes before our conversation, the ambassador was on a stage with the head of World Trade Center Utah, Jonathan Freedman, who also serves as honorary consul to Ukraine, to thank Utahns for their support, including business leaders’ willingness to offer not just humanitarian aid, but to build relationships to help Ukraine now and once the war is over.

The ambassador, appointed in February 2021, has a resume that includes educational, business and government service credentials. She’s a mother of four and a grandmother of one. She spent 17 years in private equity before joining Ukraine’s Ministry of Finance. She later served as minister of finance and has drawn on that experience as she tries to convince lawmakers of Ukrainian transparency in its financial dealings during the war in hopes of winning more military aid and financial support from Congress and abroad.

It’s no easy task. Even as she spoke in Salt Lake City Friday, an opinion piece was published in The New York Times by Ohio Republican Sen. J.D. Vance detailing why he is against the $60 billion package for Ukraine debated in Congress:

“I voted against this package in the Senate and remain opposed to virtually any proposal for the United States to continue funding this war. Mr. Biden has failed to articulate even basic facts about what Ukraine needs and how this aid will change the reality on the ground,” Vance wrote, saying that the package would only be a small part of what it would take “to turn the tide in Ukraine’s favor.”

Utah’s senior senator, Mike Lee, has said he supported early aid packages for Ukraine but switched his vote on later iterations because they included large dollar amounts that weren’t traceable or weren’t going directly toward the “military mission.” He said in February a proposed foreign aid package contained nearly $8 billion for Ukrainian government operations, and he said he would like an audit of how money given to Ukraine is used. He also wants to see “operational control of our own border.”

Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks sits down for an interview with Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 12, 2024. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

The conversation Friday with Ambassador Markarova focused on humanitarian needs and her position on additional U.S. aid to Ukraine; and what she says to lawmakers who want more accountability for the billions sought by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The following has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Deseret News: What is the current state of affairs in Ukraine?

Ambassador Markarova: So on the ground, it is a very hot and active war. I think that’s something that has been underreported sometimes. So it’s still a very active combat. Russia is pushing people through and trying to gain as much ground as they can. They are getting the equipment, missiles, shells. They are now buying a lot from North Korea and Iran. ... There are very difficult artillery duels and the situation on the front line, with their dominance still in the air. But our defenders are holding that line. And I think that is an achievement in itself.

D.N.: Some lawmakers in Washington, D.C., have questioned President (Joe) Biden’s approach and also the ability to track how Ukraine is using its resources. Some question if there is transparency. Have you received those questions in Washington?

Ambassador: We actually received that question initially. And I think through a number of sessions and information sharing, we’ll be able to show those who are skeptical about it, actually about how good the reporting and how effective the reporting and transparency is on this part of American aid. So out of the four allocations, $23 billion is what the U.S. provided to us as direct budget support. This is the money that Ukraine received. This money was sent to us through Treasury, USAID and World Bank Trust Fund for very specific purposes. So we agreed initially from the beginning what the money will be used for.

D.N.: And what was it used for?

Ambassador: It was for salaries of teachers, salaries of health care practitioners, help to the IDPs (internationally displaced persons), help to the firefighter operations and such. It’s a very strict use of rules. We can literally trace it to the last names of people who receive it. There is an audit that is done. There is daily reporting that our Ministry of Finance is doing through the Trust Fund to the Treasury. Treasury actually checks and together with the Trust Fund to the World Bank and Treasury it’s their rule.

D.N.: So how much money has the U.S. given?

Ambassador: Twenty-three billion was given to us as a direct budget support. An additional $46 billion we received as defense cooperation, defense support. Now, that support, we don’t get the money. We only get the actual goods. The money stays here. So we only get the weapons. And it’s either weapons from your own stock and you use money to buy something new or the money is used by Pentagon to actually order something for us and deliver it to us. So we do not deal with money at all for that part. And we use the NATO system called LOGFAS (Logistics Functional Area Services, supporting NATO logistics) to actually track the weapons when we receive them, how we use it, who gets it on the battlefield, when it is used.

You have three inspector generals, which Congress mandated to check the aid to Ukraine, one from Pentagon, one from USAID and one from Department of State. They worked tirelessly, literally. ... They have been to Ukraine a number of times. They meet with Ukrainian officials here. And they have published dozens of reports already. And they are publicly available. And from all of these reports, you can make a very clear statement that all the help to Ukraine is not only used, targeted for what it’s intended, effectively, transparently, but also is monitored.

So, again, Ukraine is open. ... I know that inspector generals go to Congress and have briefings. Pentagon and others also brief Congress members. If Congress would like more transparency or some more information ... we will provide it at all times, at first request.

D.N.: Is Europe doing its part? Is it doing enough?

Ambassador: Well, you know, we are grateful for all the support, let’s put it this way. But they just approved 50 billion euros for four years. And they are now trying to front load a big part of it in order to compensate for this period.

D.N.: Is that in supplies or money?

Ambassador: That’s money. That’s all just budget support to Ukraine. And on top of that, there is individual help from European countries with defense and with weapons.

D.N.: Have you received the jets from Denmark?

Ambassador: Not yet. It is in process.

D.N.: What are the humanitarian needs in Ukraine right now? Is there a specific need that can be filled by the average American?

Ambassador: Do you have like four hours to discuss? ... The short answer would be everything. You know, it’s a humanitarian catastrophe of unimaginable proportion. I mean, the country of 30 million-plus is under full-scale war for more than two years now. ... So whatever sector you take, whether it’s education, where schools are destroyed, materials are not enough — not every school still has a bomb shelter, and if it doesn’t have a bomb shelter, it cannot operate offline. So it could be health care, you know, vaccination for kids. ... There are so many people who need medical support on a daily basis, like people who are on dialysis, or people who have oncological diseases, or people who have diabetes, I mean, everything is a scarce resource now.

D.N.: So how do those who wish to provide such assistance accomplish it?

Ambassador: We have United 24, the program that President Zelenskyy started. It’s actually, you know, it’s an umbrella initiative by the president of Ukraine. (For donations, and reports on those donations, see https://u24.gov.ua/.)

D.N.: We spoke briefly of your Christian faith. How has that helped you or sustained you through the war?

Ambassador: It’s a very important part of who I am and what I do. And it always helped me and guided me, especially in difficult questions.

I think the war is a horrible experience, of course. ... But if there is one thing, it adds clarity about where you stand. Now, I have to tell you, the beginning of war, a full-fledged war, was a very challenging time for me as a Christian, because that’s when you also question yourself and question your beliefs, unfortunately, because you think, “How could God let something horrible like this happen?” And how can something unfair and unjust happen to innocent people? But I think through difficult and different experiences you then come back to it and it makes you even stronger.

D.N.: So you reconciled those feelings?

Ambassador: Yes I just think you know we need more prayers and weapons.

D.N.: In that order?

Ambassador: Well, maybe at the same time, OK?

D.N.: Can I ask you about the brooch on your jacket, over your heart. Does it have significance for you?

Ambassador: It’s a very special pin which Anne Hand, a very famous pin designer and wonderful friend, did for Ukraine. All proceeds from these pins go toward Central Kitchen operations (feeding those in need of assistance) in Ukraine. And she modeled it from a very famous pin that Madeleine Albright was wearing, who has been also such a friend of Ukraine. So it’s about our fight. It’s about our fight for peace. It’s about friendship between Ukraine and the U.S.

Ukrainian Ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova wears a pin that symbolizes Ukraine's fight for peace and friendship with the U.S. as she sits for an interview with Deseret News Executive Editor Doug Wilks at the Grand America Hotel in Salt Lake City on Friday, April 12, 2024. The pin was designed by the ambassador’s friend Anne Hand, a famous pin designer. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News