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Ukrainian-Americans in Va. fear war on horizon for home country

HAMPTON ROADS, Va. — A month ago, George and Oksana Makowiec of Seaford were hopeful that Ukraine was on the road to a prosperous and peaceful future after months of protests culminated in a new government.

They knew moving forward wouldn't be easy — Russian tanks could roll into Ukraine as they had in Georgia in 2008, George Makowiec said then — but the bloodshed in the country's capital of Kiev had stopped. That was reason enough to celebrate.

Over the past week, however, Makowiec's worries of Putin sending troops into the country have become a reality. New fears have arisen that war could break out over Russia's recent move to annex the Crimean Peninsula, where residents overwhelmingly approved a referendum to join Russia.

Many local Ukrainian-Americans with ties to Ukraine's western region echoed Makowiec's fears. They said they hoped to see a strong response to Russia's recent movements in Ukraine from the U.S. and Europe.

Makowiec, who runs a robotics company in Hampton, said his family and friends living in western Ukraine are safe for now but they are on edge, worried about further military action from Russia.

"Losing the Crimean Peninsula is one thing. It's done and over with and not going to be returned. The biggest fear is that they are going to invade eastern Ukraine," which could lead to all-out war, Makowiec said.

Makowiec and his wife are trying to help the Ukrainian cause. They have sent money to help friends hospitalized during the protests in Kiev, but they said it's hard to watch the chaos in their home country from thousands of miles away.

"We feel totally helpless from here," Makowiec said. "What can we do from here?"

Many local Ukrainian-Americans are similarly frustrated, said Olena Boyko of Urbanna, who serves as president of the Tidewater Ukrainian Cultural Association.

"What we're doing right now is signing petitions, calling the White House and Senate Foreign Relations Committee ... and trying to express our frustration with the paltry U.S. response," Boyko said.

Wally Melnitchouk, membership coordinator with the Tidewater Ukrainian Cultural Association, said his group strives to be non-political but that is a tenuous goal during the current tensions.

"It specifically is not a political organization," Melnitchouk said. "But it's difficult to know where the boundary between culture and politics is. If some country invades your country of origin, where you do you draw the line?"

Melnitchouk said he believes the recent chaos in Ukraine goes beyond political issues, especially since Russia's rationale for sending troops into the Crimean Peninsula — to protect the Russian-speaking populace — is also a cultural issue.

Russia's recent actions suggest that "Russian-speaking" means pro-Russian, which is not the case, Melnitchouk said. He says there's been tremendous support for Ukraine's new European-aligned government from Russian-speaking regions.

"At some of the recent demonstrations in Norfolk, there were as many Russian speakers as Ukrainian speakers," he said. "There were people there from Odessa, a city on Ukraine's Black Sea coast, who don't speak Ukrainian, who speak Russian, but were there to support the pro-western movement in Ukraine."

Melnitchouk and others fear Russia might use that same argument to move its military into other parts of Ukraine. Many regions of Ukraine have significant Russian-speaking populations from when Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.

War in Ukraine would be catastrophic, Melnitchouk said. The Ukrainians are outnumbered and outgunned by the Russians, but some Ukrainians are quitting their jobs and volunteering to form a "national guard" to protect the country from further incursion.

"A lot of people are volunteering to go into the service now to protect the country. Part of Oksana's family has joined up," Makowiec said.

Melnitchouk believes the response from the U.S. and Europe will be a major influence on how the current crisis plays out, but the response of the Russian people might be just as important.

"Nobody wants war. Probably most Russians don't want a war either," he said. "I think it's important that western countries stand up to Russia, and not necessarily through military confrontation … and put pressures on the Russian government to let them know this is not acceptable."
 

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