Former First Lady of Ukraine Kateryna Yushchenko said her country is confident it will prevail in its bloody war with Russia.
“Our country is united as never before,” said Yushchenko in an interview with WTTW News. “For generations we have fought for our freedom and independence. We feel this is our last stand and we will win.”
Yushchenko, the daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1950s, was born in Chicago and lived much of her early life in Humboldt Park before moving to Mount Prospect.
After earning an MBA in international economics from the University of Chicago, Yushchenko had an impressive career in public service.
She worked at the U.S. State Department as a special assistant to the assistant secretary for human rights and humanitarian affairs, the White House as a public liaison during the Ronald Reagan administration, and at the Treasury when George H.W. Bush was president.
But in 1991, Yushchenko moved to Ukraine just before the country’s declaration of independence amid the collapse of the Soviet Union.
She is currently visiting Chicago with her husband, former Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, to commemorate the Holodomor — a genocidal famine imposed by Stalin’s Russia that killed millions of Ukrainians from 1932 to 1933.
Kateryna Yushchenko said the Holodomor or Terror Famine was just part of a long and tragic history of Russian attempts to suppress Ukrainian independence.
“Ukraine is a country that has been striving for its independence and its freedom for many centuries,” said Yushchenko.
That struggle almost cost her husband his life.
Running for president of Ukraine in 2004 on a pro-Western and pro-democracy platform, Viktor Yushchenko was notoriously poisoned and came close to death.
He survived and ultimately won the presidency.
Kateryna Yushchenko said there was no doubt that Putin and Russia were behind the assassination attempt because of her husband’s attempt to move Ukraine out of Russia’s sphere of influence.
“He was running a campaign against the entrenched powers that were very close to Russia,” said Yushchenko. “And when he made it clear that Ukraine would be moving away from Russia, including taking Sevastopol back by treaty — we were supposed to get it back in 2017 — the Russians went very strongly against him and poisoned him. And indeed, anybody who had been involved in the poisoning moved to Russia almost immediately.”
Yushchenko said that she believes the outcome of the war with Russia will shape not just Ukraine’s future but the world’s.
“It's not an exaggeration to say that what happens in Ukraine will very much determine the future of the world because if Ukraine does not win, authoritarian dictators around the world will be emboldened,” said Yushchenko.
“If the richest and most democratic and freedom-loving countries of the world cannot come together and eliminate an aggressor that’s committing genocide right on their border, what hope is there for freedom fighters in Africa and Asia and Latin America? On the other hand, if Ukraine is victorious, I think it will reinvigorate freedom and democracy around the world.”
Yushchenko said despite tiredness from nightly air raids and sadness over the death and destruction, Ukrainians remain confident of victory despite sometimes wavering support on the Republican side of the aisle in Washington, D.C.
“We’re very grateful for the support we have, but no matter what support we get, we will continue to fight and we’re determined as a nation,” said Yushchenko. “If we had gotten all the weapons that we had needed, we could have ended this quickly, but they came very slowly, and as a result, it’s taking us longer than we would like. We have more losses than we hoped to have. On the other hand, I know that we will win.”