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From Kansas City, Ukrainians watch and worry as Russia invades their home country

2017_Oleksandra Wallo stands with 3 students in front of Pidhirtsi Castle in Ukraine_Oleksandra Wall
Oleksandra Wallo
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Courtesy Photo
Oleksandra Wallo (far left) and her students stand in front of the Pidhirsti Castle near Lviv, Ukraine. The photo is from a trip in 2017.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is deploying troops to breakaway regions of Ukraine, which has residents of Kansas City in Lawrence worrying for their family members abroad. 

Ukraianians across the Kansas City region are nervous for their families after Russian President Vladimir Putin sent troops into two breakaway regions in eastern Ukraine Tuesday.

“They’re all on pins and needles watching the news pretty much around the clock, trying to understand what’s happening and predict what will happen next,” said Oleksandra Wallo. “It’s a very, very dicey situation.”

Wallo is an associate professor for the department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages & Literatures at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. She moved from Ukraine to the U.S. in 2006, and her parents and brother still live in Western Ukraine.

Wallo has been in constant contact with her family, and says she's so worried about them, she’s having trouble working.

“I think I would be more at ease if I were there, with my family,” Wallo says.

Wallo used to visit Ukraine at least once a year, and she hosts a study abroad program for her students in the United States, accompanying them to her hometown of Lviv. Because of the pandemic, however, she has not been able to go home to visit family or travel with students.

“Generally, I have to say, I so admire my compatriots who are there right now in Ukraine who are not panicking,” says Wallo.“They're being very brave. They are ready to defend their country, if necessary, with arms in hand. Most of them are not going anywhere. They are determined to stay put and fight if necessary.”

091921_a man stands under a picnic shelter wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt_Vitaly Chernetsky
Victor Chernetsky
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Courtesy Photo
Vitaly Chernetsky says he is a member of the Ukranian Club of Kansas City, which hosts several events annually. In this photo, he's wearing a traditional Ukrainian embroidered shirt at the club's annual picnic last fall. Chernetsky says Kansas City's Ukrainian community is small but close knit.

Vitaly Chernetsky, who is also a professor at KU’s department of Slavic and Eurasian Languages & Literatures, said he is most concerned for his elderly father. The two spoke on Monday, as Putin made a speech denying Ukraine's authority as a country and declaring the two separatist Ukrainian regions, Donetsk and Luhansk, as sovereign states.

“He has sort of this stoic, philosophical attitude to life and avoids politics, as many people who lived through the Soviet period do,” Chernetsky said of his father. “But his voice, his emotional state, has also changed. Yesterday was actually his birthday, and when I called to wish him happy birthday, he basically said that Putin was speaking live on TV and there was a danger that an invasion could begin as we were speaking. That was quite frightening.”

Former Kansas resident Mickey Cesar, who lived in Lawrence for 13 years and earned a master’s degree in English from the University of Kansas, moved to Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv in 2011. He witnessed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula in 2014.

Despite the potential war, Cesar says he plans to remain in Kyiv. He said he's impressed by the way people in Kyiv are responding to the conflict.

“There is no panic at all,” Cesar says. “You know how when the coronavirus hit the United States, all of a sudden there was no toilet paper? Nothing like that at all, it’s business as usual.”

Cesar said Putin is invading Ukraine as an attempt to control the narrative around democracy.

“Putin is not afraid of Ukraine joining Nato, he’s not afraid of the military. What he is afraid of is his own people seeing Ukrainian democracy succeed,” Cesar says. “There are huge connections, family connections, linguistic connections, economic connections between Ukraine and Russia. And he does not want his own people to think that they can get rid of a dictator. That they don’t have to live under corruption, mafia control, and one man rule. That’s his fear.”

Ani Kokobobo, a professor of Russian literature and culture at KU, said Putin’s televised speech Monday was full of historical inaccuracies that aimed at delegitimizing Ukrainian sovereignty.

Kokobobo says she found it especially problematic that Putin called former Soviet Union Premier Vladimir Lenin the “author and architect.”

“It was very hard to get sort of that history lesson that we got yesterday in the address, it was really incorrect in many ways,” Kokobobo says. “And it just felt so problematic that that was what was being broadcast to the world, with this strange emphasis on Vladimir Lenin being the one who created Ukraine.”

Kokobobo says she is using the speech as a lesson for all of her students, to spread the word of Putin’s inaccuracies.

0821_A man sits at a table with food and drinks on a balcony in Odessa, Ukraine_Vitaly Chernetsky
Vitaly Chernetsky
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Courtesy Photo
Vitaly Chernetsky visits his home town of Odessa, Ukraine frequently. This photo was taken during his trip last summer when he visited family.

Chernetsky is also trying to educate as many people as he can on Ukraine and its importance. He said he feels like it’s all he can do right now, while he's thousands of miles from his family.

Chernetsky says Russia’s actions have the potential to affect the entire world.

“Basically, Russian leadership is now testing the entire post World War II security setup that allowed us to live more or less in peace since 1945,” says Chernetsky. “There have been, of course, other conflicts, but nothing on a global scale. And this is really threatening, something like that because it is throwing away all the traditions that were established after the war.”

Chernetsky said Ukraine destroyed its nuclear weapons in 1994, but Russia’s invasion of the country could make other nations want to hold on to their nuclear weapons, putting the entire planet at risk.

“Imagine what some politicians, say in Iran or North Korea are thinking as the entire world wants to hold their nuclear weapons programs,” said Chernetsky. “They can say, ‘Well, Ukraine gave up its nukes and look what happened to it.’”

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