Local Ukrainians organize amid fears of Russian invasion
Sophia Koropeckyj, like many members of Pennsylvania's Ukrainian community, the nation's second largest, were elated last week after the ouster of Ukraine's pro-Russian President Vicktor Yanukovych.
By Saturday, that mood had soured, as Russia voted to send troops into Ukraine.
“I’m heartsick,” Koropeckyj said. “A week ago, everyone was jubilant, everyone was hugging each other. Today, it’s as somber as a funeral.”
Koropeckyj, president of the Ukrainian Education and Cultural Center in Jenkintown, said it harkens to events in World War II, when Soviet forces invaded territories in western Ukraine. His parents fled to America during that time.
"I was brought up with certain very deep feelings about the losses that they suffered,” Koropeckyj said. "I probably reflect the feelings of many people in our community.”
To Koropeckyj and others at the center the announcement of Russian military action came as a surreal indicator of history repeating itself. The development is the latest chapter in a fast-moving series of events that threatens to engulf Ukraine in chaos.
“Everyone is shocked – shocked,” said 24-year-old Yulia Kurka, who recently immigrated to Philadelphia but whose friends and family remain in Ukraine. “I’m scared that a lot of people will die.”
Ukraine’s most recent round of unrest touched off in late November, when Yanukovych announced he would not pursue a popular trade agreement with the European Union and instead elected to accept financial aid from Russia.
Pro-European protests erupted in the capital of Kiev, with demonstrators denouncing the administration’s purported corruption and calling for Yanukovych’s resignation. Some protesters clashed with police, and at least two were killed by gunfire.
Still, Yanukovych was ousted last Saturday, a development many Ukrainians felt constituted a progressive victory.
“In our community, there was a great deal of apprehensive joy – because lots of people knew that this was a danger – about the fact that the Ukrainian people finally stood up to a kleptocratic, autocratic regime and had managed to begin a process where they could have a democratic and transparent government,” Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center executive director Mark Tarnawsky said.
“Evidently, that is not to Russia’s liking.”
On Saturday, Russian armed forces seized control of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula after Russia’s upper parliament voted to authorize an invasion.
Though Russian President Vladimir Putin characterized the move as a bid to stabilize Ukraine’s political climate and protect Russian citizens and military interests there, other world leaders and observers denounced it as a naked power grab.
“Because President Putin has not been able to reconcile himself with the fact that the Soviet Union collapsed 20 years ago, he wants to recreate the Soviet Union,” Koropeckyj said. “It’s just not acceptable.”
Heavily populated by Russian natives, Crimea is seen as one of the last bastions of opposition to the interim political leadership installed in Yanukovych’s wake. Some have accused Putin of playing provocateur, attempting to inflame separatist tensions in the Ukrainian peninsula in the hopes it will secede.
“Russian politics for Crimea has been this way for forever,” Kurka said. “They’ve been trying to turn this into Russian territory.”
Still, the latest move from Putin shocked even those who have been closely following the rapid-fire developments in the region. “Russia deliberately provoked a conflict in Ukraine in order to assert their control,” Tarnawsky said. “I actually – maybe naively – did not expect them to go as far as they actually did.”
Now, as tumult soars, local Ukrainians are banding together to mount a defense.
“The Ukrainian community outside of Ukraine has been a very important pillar of support for the people who do want to live in a free and civil society in Ukraine,” Koropeckyj said. “We feel a very strong responsibility to support our brothers and sisters.”
The Ukrainian Educational and Cultural Center has been encouraging members to write letters to politicians demanding the U.S. initiate economic sanctions against Russia. They’ve also been collecting donations to cover Ukrainian protestors’ food and medical expenses. Members are this week planning a series of organized actions in Washington, D.C. in a bid to raise awareness of the conflict, among both legislators and citizens.
Kurka has been gathering local Ukrainians for near-weekly solidarity rallies since November. Before the most recent escalation of events, she was hoping for a reprieve.
“We were thinking of taking a day off this week,” Kurka said. “We were thinking it would all change in a better way and so we would not have to protest anymore.”
But, as news of the Russian dispatch dawned, a demonstration was scheduled for Sunday, March 2. Protesters will gather at 2:30 p.m. at Independence Mall, then march to the Municipal Services Building at 15th Street and John F. Kennedy Boulevard.
“To allow the Russian Federation to do this and stand idly by while they do it is not only a danger to Ukraine – which, of course, our community cares very deeply about – but that’s a danger to the European Union. That’s a danger to the United States,” Tarnawsky said.
“Since when is invading a sovereign country something that we tolerate?”