Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska visits White House

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Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska visited the White House on Tuesday, part of her high-profile trip to Washington as the Russian war in her country enters its sixth month.

Zelenska arrived at the White House just after 1:30 p.m. and was greeted on the South Lawn by President Biden and first lady Jill Biden. The president presented Zelenska with a bouquet of yellow sunflowers, blue hydrangeas and white orchids — reminiscent of the colors of the Ukrainian flag — and the first lady hugged Zelenska.

The group, which included Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, posed for a photo at the south entrance to the White House, flanked by an American flag and a Ukrainian flag. They did not answer reporters’ shouted questions about what they would discuss.

Zelenska and Jill Biden had a private meeting, then held an expanded meeting with Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Isobel Coleman, the deputy administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs; Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy; and second gentleman Douglas Emhoff.

Tuesday’s White House visit was not the first meeting for Zelenska and Jill Biden. In May, over Mother’s Day weekend, Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to Ukraine and met with Zelenska in Uzhhorod, a city that lies on the border with Slovakia, as well as Ukrainian refugees.

At the start of their private meeting Tuesday, Jill Biden recalled the “sorrow and pain” of the war zone and told Zelenska her team had been working on ways to help with the mental health of Ukrainian mothers and children forced to flee their homes.

On Monday, Zelenska met with Secretary of State Antony Blinken and USAID Administrator Samantha Power to “address the long-term psychosocial impacts of Russia’s war” in Ukraine, according to the White House.

Earlier Tuesday, Zelenska visited the new Victims of Communism Museum in Washington to accept a human rights award on behalf of the people of Ukraine. In remarks at the museum, Zelenska noted that there were three photographs of Ukrainian dissidents who had been tortured or sent away for “questioning the cult of Stalin.” She compared those to some of the atrocities Ukrainians had faced in the past five months as a result of Russia’s invasion.

“Through all this suffering and pain, we send a strong warning to the war: Remember the darkest past can be easily beaten,” Zelenska said. “In certain places, the darkness has never faded away. It just figured out how to operate more advanced weaponry and use social media. And so we’re not only fighting for our freedom today, we are fighting so that Stalin’s great terror will no longer be repeated anywhere, ever, in the civilized world.”

The mention of Joseph Stalin was intentional. In the early 1930s, the Soviet dictator carried out policies that led to mass famine in Ukraine. An estimated 4 million people died during that period, known as the Holodomor, or death by hunger.

Cut off from food, Ukrainians recall famine under Stalin

On Wednesday morning, Zelenska is scheduled to address Congress to give an update on the security, economic and humanitarian conditions on the ground in Ukraine. The remarks will come less than two months after Congress approved a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine in May, which included $20 billion in military aid, nearly $8 billion in economic aid, nearly $5 billion in global food aid and more than $1 billion in combined support for refugees.

In a letter to Democratic colleagues Tuesday about Zelenska’s upcoming visit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) highlighted the toll on women and girls that the war in Ukraine has taken, a topic she said has been of particular concern to the women in Congress.

“In the course of visits from Ukrainian leaders — from members of parliament to grass roots heroes — many of us have heard horrific stories about the brutal treatment of women and girls by Russian forces,” Pelosi wrote. “Indeed, we have sufficient evidence of kidnappings and deportations into Russia, rape of women in front of family members and even rape of little girls. … Let me be clear: rape of children cannot be a weapon of war. It is a war crime!”

At the start of the war, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed that his family was a top target for Russian troops. In a rare joint interview with him in May, Zelenska said she and her two children did not see Zelensky for 2½ months after the war started, as they sheltered in an undisclosed location apart from him.

“Our family was torn apart, as every other Ukrainian family,” Zelenska said then.

Jeff Stein, Mike DeBonis and Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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