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Ukrainians rally in D.C. to protest Russian invasion of their native country

Inna Nagrebelna, who is from Kyiv and has family still in Ukraine, demonstrates against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24 across from the White House. (Craig Hudson/For the Washington Post)
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Hundreds of Ukrainians and their supporters converged outside the White House on Thursday afternoon to protest Russia’s invasion of the country and demand a stronger response from the Biden administration.

In Lafayette Square, just outside the White House fence, the demonstrators gathered about 4:30 p.m. in a cold, misty rain, shouting for President Biden to do more to stop Russian President Vladimir Putin’s advance. Blue and yellow Ukrainian flags were held high above the peaceful crowd as people shouted for “Sanctions now!” and “Defend Ukraine now!” Some banged drums, others screamed into bullhorns.

“All Ukrainians in the D.C. area and throughout the country and the world are really so concerned about what’s going on. It’s beyond concern,” said Maryna Baydyuk, an organizer of the demonstration and president of United Help Ukraine, which is accepting humanitarian-aid donations to help Ukrainians. “We’re all scared. We’re all frustrated. We cannot believe what’s happening in our home country.”

The rally followed hours of demonstrations outside the Russian Embassy as Ukrainians gathered overnight in the aftermath of Russia’s military assault. Russia launched the attack on Ukraine from multiple directions early Thursday, with Putin undeterred by world condemnation of the assault and sanctions that the United States and European allies levied this week.

As they watched reports of explosions with horror, Ukrainians and their supporters began arriving at the Russian Embassy about 1 a.m. — numbering up to 100, by some of the demonstrators’ estimates.

“We couldn’t stay home,” Baydyuk said “We just had to do something.”

She called her mother, father and sister who live in Kyiv, fearing they could still be asleep and unaware of the impending danger. “For us it’s very difficult,” she said. “I would never imagine talking to my mom on the phone and telling her to seek shelter immediately because there are Russian planes flying overhead and bombing the capital of Ukraine — a European country, a peaceful country.”

Her family retreated to the basement of their apartment building, she said, where they were taking shelter again overnight.

Nadiya Shaporynska, another organizer of the demonstrations and president of U.S. Ukrainian Activists, said that when she spoke to her family in the Ukrainian city of Dnipro they described an atmosphere of fear. People were emptying the shelves at grocery stores, rushing to the banks to withdraw money.

“I was in shock, and we were very much afraid,” she said.

She said the protesters remained at the embassy until 5 a.m., singing and chanting, draped in Ukrainian flags.

What’s next for Ukraine? Our reporters answer your questions about Russia’s assault.

Hours later — on the normally quiet corner of Northwest Washington near the embassy — about 20 protesters stood in the rain as temperatures hovered above freezing.

They stood across from Boris Nemtsov Plaza — a street named for a slain Russian dissident — and waved blue-and-yellow balloons and held signs that read “Stop Putin Now,” the letters streaking in the rain. Some passing drivers on Wisconsin Avenue honked in support.

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Valerie Hovetter, walking into Wisconsin Avenue traffic with her sign, said she spent four years working as a researcher in Ukraine. She said Putin is “killing people to feed his own ego.”

“I think most people know it is wrong,” she said.

Leonid Shumilo, a doctoral student who came to the University of Maryland in 2021, shouted obscenities in Ukrainian at the guards in front of the embassy. He said his sister spent the night in a bunker in Kyiv as bombs fell.

“I want to see all the people around the world united against war,” he said.

Shumilo described Putin as a modern-day Adolf Hitler poised to bring fascism to Europe. He recounted the many other countries that would be in danger if Ukraine were taken: Lithuania, Belarus, Poland. A lot of people were dying, he said, and the world must act now.

“If not right now, when?” he said.

Police made at least one arrest outside the embassy Thursday morning. A D.C. police spokesman said officers saw a woman trying to spray-paint something on a sidewalk and disrupted her activity. Police could not confirm what was spray-painted, although witnesses said the word “murder” had been painted in red. About noon, a crew was pressure-washing the graffiti away.

A patrol from the U.S. Secret Service, which handles security outside the foreign embassies in D.C., took the woman into custody, a spokesperson said. The identity of the woman was not released pending charges being filed.

Aaron McGovern, the co-owner of the Russia House restaurant in the District’s Kalorama neighborhood, said he took down the Russian flag hanging outside, fearing that his restaurant may become a target for vandalism. “I took it down not as a political statement in any way. I did it to protect my property,” he said. His co-owner, Arturas Vorobjovas, has family in Ukraine and had been calling to check on them, McGovern said.

At the White House protest, Shaporynska and Baydyuk said the demonstrators are asking the Biden administration to impose more sanctions to cripple Russia economically.

“What’s happening, it’s not right in the 21st century. There shouldn’t be war in the 21st century,” Shaporynska said. “Ukraine is a peaceful European country, and Ukraine works very well on its democratic development. It’s a country that has very positive goals to achieve, not to be part of the Soviet Union, not to be part of Russia.”

Craig Hudson contributed to this report.