Ukrainian Americans in Minnesota watch with concern as Russian forces build up at overseas borders

Armored personnel carriers.


Combat helicopters.

And 100,000 soldiers.

A display of Russian military might along the 1400 mile Russian-Ukrainian border.

All of this is closely watched by many members of Minnesota’s Ukrainian American community, now estimated at around 17,000.

“It’s really a scary situation,” says Oleksandr Komarenko, who moved from Kiev, Ukraine, to Minnesota in 1997. “People are very worried. This is probably the largest, largest buildup of the Russian army on our borders roughly since the beginning of our history of Ukrainian independence.

“No one I talk to has a clear idea of ​​what’s planned,” says Stefan Iwaskewycz, a former board member of the Ukrainian Center in Northeast Minneapolis.

Born in the United States, he worries for his relatives living in Ukraine.

“In the family and friends I’m close to, we constantly talk about it,” notes Iwaskewycz. “Would anyone actually take the arms of my family, my cousins, or who could actually fight? I mean, war is war, right? Who knows how big it is. Where the bombs could fall or the shootings could take place.

This uncertainty is troubling not only for the community here, but also for American leaders.

“The current situation demands that we strengthen the deterrent and defensive posture on NATO’s eastern flank,” Pentagon press secretary John Kirby told reporters. “We don’t know if Russia has made the final decision to invade Ukraine further, but they clearly have that capability.”

On Friday, it was announced that the French president and German chancellor would visit Moscow and Kiev as part of a diplomatic effort to dissuade Russian President Vladimir Putin from launching an invasion of Ukraine.

The visits come as China now backs Russia’s demand that NATO should not be allowed to expand into Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the United States is also reacting.

This week, President Biden ordered the deployment of 2,000 troops from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, to Poland and Germany.

A thousand others are transferred from Germany to Romania.

Thousands more across the United States are on heightened alert.

“There is a lot of concern today because the numbers are staggering,” Komarenko said.

Now a counselor-educator in Mankato State, he moved to Minnesota to pursue a college education.

Komarenko’s biggest concern is the safety of his family members in Ukraine, in the event of a Russian invasion.

His mother Tetiana is over seventy years old and still lives in Kiev.

“She’s not very mobile, and for the past two years with COVID she’s been postponing her knee treatments, so it would be really difficult for her,” Komarenko says. “With Putin’s armor and heavily mechanized troops locked down and loaded, they could attempt a blitzkrieg at any moment.”

But what is Putin doing exactly?

“Ukraine can easily become Vietnam for Russians,” says Theofanis Stavrou, professor of Russian history at the University of Minnesota.

Stavrou says Putin may be bluffing for concessions with the West.

He adds that if Russia invades, it will face punitive economic sanctions and an insurgency inside Ukraine.

“It will not be a pleasant experience for the Russians in terms of losses, in terms of economy,” Stavrou said. “I think there are a lot of fighting forces in Ukraine. Nationalism is very important to Ukrainians.

Experts say Ukraine now has about 215,000 military personnel.

Women have taken on combat roles since 2016.

In the city of Kharkiv, in eastern Ukraine, female volunteers are being trained to fight the Russians.

“This city needs to be protected,” says Viktoria Balesina, one of the trainees. “Russia has a big appetite, and they are taking it piece by piece. We have to do something, not panic and fall to our knees. We don’t want that.

“For Ukrainians, it’s very stressful,” Iwaskewycz said. “They feel like their country is on the brink of war or already at war for years.”

Komarenko says her mother is ready in case of an invasion.

“She has her kind of basics ready, and a ‘bug-out’ bag so to speak, containing documents and necessities,” he says. “Everyone is hoping that the Russians won’t really come into the big cities and engage in street fights.”

In this tense time, Ukrainians from Kiev to Minneapolis say they have hope.

But they also say their country is ready to fight.

“If there is an invasion, the Ukrainians will fight like crazy, right?” said Iwaskewycz. “The history of the Ukrainian people is to constantly resist every time a foreign power invades.”

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