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Chicago Ukrainians Urge Action as Crimean Crisis Deepens

By  Alisa Hauser and Darryl Holliday | March 3, 2014 10:22am 

 Over 200 people packed a "Town Hall" meeting at the Ukrainian Cultural Center on Sunday to discuss unrest in their country and what the United States can do to help the Eastern European nation.
Ukrainian Cultural Center Town Hall Meeting with Sen. Dick Durbin
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UKRAINIAN VILLAGE — As Russian troops invade the Crimean peninsula in southern Ukraine, Chicago-area Ukrainians packed a meeting on Sunday to discuss unrest in their country and learn what American political leaders are doing to help their embattled Eastern European nation.

"Nobody expected Russia would move as aggressively as they did. As Putin was hosting the World Olympics at Sochi, it is clear military preparations were happening," said Geoffrey Pyatt, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who spoke via Skype to a rapt crowd of over 200 people at the Ukrainian Cultural Center, 2247  W. Chicago Ave.

Russian troops have taken over "vital installations" in Crimea and prompted Ukraine's interim leader to say that the country is on "the brink of disaster," according to reports.

 Anti-Putin sign on the door of meeting hall in Ukrainian Village on Sunday.
Anti-Putin sign on the door of meeting hall in Ukrainian Village on Sunday.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

"We need to call this what it is: it is an invasion by Russia military in violation of Ukrainian sovereignty," Pyatt said.

The turmoil, which Pyatt called "a threat to the wider European region," has prompted U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to announce a visit to the embattled Ukrainian capitol Kiev Monday for discussions scheduled Tuesday.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said he is working with International Monetary Fund [IMF] to prepare a plan to help Ukraine's economy recover as well as drafting a bipartisan agreement and "going through NATO."

"The crisis in Crimea needs to be addressed as a political and a diplomatic problem and not a military problem," said Pyatt, who is based in Kiev.

Pyatt said the Ukrainian troops are "outnumbered and outgunned" by Russian troops, adding that he "fully expects that the Ukrainian people will fight if Russia extends their campaign into the Ukrainian homeland beyond the Crimean Peninsula."

Sentiments among attendees were mixed.

"They say they are ready to fight, freedom or die," Mykola Stefaniuk said of his brother and two sisters who currently live in Western Ukraine.

"But there are 150,000 soldiers in Ukraine army and over 1 million in Russia army. We want American government to make conversation with Putin. We don't want Ukrainian people to die," Stefaniuk said.

Describing Durbin as "clearly well informed and right on target in his remarks," Nata Abbott, who drove to Chicago from Wisconsin to attend the meeting, said, "We have to be careful, be strong enough to send a message to Russia but careful not to escalate the situation."

Lilia Zapananiuk, a Ukrainian Village resident, said, "I am not quite happy we have not pushed any real buttons though. ... Nothing done except verbal support," Zapananiuk said of Durbin.

Though Durbin, whose mother is a Lithuanian immigrant, has been a supporter of Ukraine, many in the crowd felt more action is needed.

"You have also alluded to the fact Vladimir Putin understands only action. And we have some great sayings of support but it is time to demonstrate some action," Bandriwsky told Durbin.

Park Ridge resident Orest Baranyk told Durbin,  "At this time we have to start serious intervention, a show of force."

After the meeting, Baranyk said the U.S. "should send a fleet of ships in."

"Nobody is asking the U.S. to fight but to show armament...   They need to go over there and help them, not get involved physically, but show of force in the Black Sea," Baranyk said.

Andrew Labazevych, a Ukrainian Village resident, said, "We expect that the U.S. and Great Britain would show more support since we resigned from nuclear weapons in 1994."

Labazevych was referring to the Budapest Memorandum between Ukraine, Russia, the United States and Great Britain where the four nations agreed to protect Ukrainian's independence if Ukraine would give up its nuclear weapons to Russia for dismantling, which Ukraine did.

Pyatt told the crowd that "[Budapest Memorandum] is not a legally binding treaty... However it reflects a strong political commitment."

Naperville resident Oleysa Gerasymenko said she thought the meeting "was pretty successful."

"We met many Americans who are not Ukraine. It was an important event in front of many people but Ukrainians are not very happy with [Pyatt's] comment that the memorandum of 1994 is not legally binding. We are afraid that will make Putin continue his occupation," she said.

Labazevych has a close childhood friend living near Ukraine's eastern border next to Russia and several family members, including his grandmother and aunt, residing in western Ukraine.

"Everybody is scared of Russia. We are defenseless. We need the international community to defend us," Labazevych said.

On the Chicago front, many Ukrainian citizens who are represented by Ukraine's Consul to Chicago, Andriy Pravednyk, are calling for Pravednyk's resignation, under grounds that he was appointed by Ukraine's former Minister for Foreign Affairs and "is not showing his sincere intention to cooperate with the Ukrainian diaspora," Gerasymenko said.

Gerasymenko believes Pravednyk is lying about not having video footage of an incident on the steps of the consulate where a possible Russian provocateur created a disturbance at a vigil for dead Kiev protestors.

When asked about Pravednyk, Bandriewsky said, "This thing with consulate is a distraction.  Ukrainian independence and territory integrity is what is most important."

Ukrainians in Chicago are wondering what the United States will do in response.

"If you're a Chicagoan and you're half a world away, you're going do the natural thing: decide someone is the good guy and someone is the bad guy. But we need try to embrace all the factors that play a part in this — keeping emotion to a minimum and analysis to a maximum," said Richard Farkas, professor of political science at DePaul University. 

An expert in Eastern Europe and Central Europe, Farkas, in a telephone interview on Sunday, said that foreseeing which way the scales will tip in Ukraine is "virtually impossible to predict" at the moment.

Farkas said President Barack Obama is "being cautious."

"The last thing you want to do is enter a conflict with no foreseeable end," Farkas said.