Having offended constituencies vital to securing electoral success in November, including blacks, Latinos and women, Donald Trump has now seemingly surpassed himself by alienating yet another group, Ukrainian-Americans. Though the latter don't constitute a numerically huge voting bloc, Ukrainian-Americans reside in Midwestern battlegrounds such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, swing states which Trump must win.
Traditionally, Ukrainian-Americans have skewed toward the Republican Party which took a hard line toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Now, however, Ukrainian-Americans may abandon the GOP due to Trump's apologetic stance toward Putin and Russia. Former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort's ties to former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who in turn had sought to ally his country to Russia before he himself was ousted during the Maidan revolution, may also prompt Ukrainian-Americans to jettison the Republican Party.
Currently, there are more than 20 million Ukrainians living abroad, of which one million reside in the U.S. In Ohio, Ukrainian-Americans are mostly congregated around Cleveland and some 45,000 people stateside trace their roots back to the Old Country. In Pennsylvania meanwhile, Ukrainian-Americans number more than 120,000. Other sizable populations reside in must-win states like Michigan and Florida. The expat community has long-standing ties to Midwestern members of Congress serving on the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus.
Within the Rust Belt, Ukrainian-Americans have been politically active over the past few years. In Pennsylvania, for example, the local community around Pittsburgh has sent medical supplies to the fledgling government in Kiev which has found itself at war with Russian-backed separatists. Moreover, when Russia invaded Crimea and later hastily organized a referendum, Ukrainian-Americans in Pittsburgh voiced their concerns about Kremlin interventionism to local Republican Congressman Tim Murphy. In Philadelphia meanwhile, Ukrainian-Americans have rallied in support of Kiev and support sanctions against Russia.
In neighboring Ohio, Ukrainian-Americans have been no less active. Students at Ohio State University, for example, took to the streets of Columbus to protest Viktor Yanukovych's clampdown on Maidan protesters back in 2014. Demonstrators, who hoped the U.S. and E.U. would provide more active support for the Maidan, also took to the streets of Cleveland, Cincinnati, Dayton and Toledo.
Paying the Political Price
Though Manafort has resigned from the Trump campaign, the political damage may have already been done. In an interview with the New York Times, Trump questioned whether the U.S. would come to the aid of Eastern European nations if the latter were attacked by Russia. Needless to say, such aid is required under the NATO Charter. Even more brazenly, Trump changed the GOP platform to strip out providing defensive weapons to Kiev. Such moves set off alarm bells amongst Ukrainian-Americans in the Midwest who are certainly familiar with historic patterns of Russian aggressiveness. Andrew Fedynsky of New Jersey's Ukrainian Weekly remarks, "Let me put it bluntly: If you care for Ukraine, you cannot vote for Donald Trump. For Ukrainians and many others, Mr. Trump's and Russian President Vladimir Putin's mutual admiration is utterly alarming, starting with his proposal to pull the U.S. out of NATO. Doing so would undermine 75 years of a successful global security policy even as it would fulfill Russia's strategic goal going back to Joseph Stalin."
Adrian Karatnycky, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, has remarked "At a time of a mounting threat by Russia to the countries in Eastern Europe and with Russian forces occupying parts of Ukrainian territory ...There is a strong core of first and second generation voters numbering in the hundreds of thousands who closely follow events in their ancestral homelands and whose electoral choice can be decisively swayed on the issue of NATO and a strong anti-Putin stance."
Democratic Congressman Bill Pascrell of New Jersey, who is a member of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, has excoriated Trump. The Republican nominee, Pascrell charges, lacks a mastery of the "simple facts" and merely regurgitates Putin's "talking points" on Crimea. Tamara Olexy, President of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, has chimed in. "We are very troubled by the recent statements from Candidate Trump," she declares, "that he might recognize Russia's illegal occupation of Crimea and even end sanctions against the Russian Federation."
Myroslaw Smorodsky, Communications Director of the Ukrainian American Bar Association, adds that "During his television interview with George Stephanopoulos on July 31, 2016, Donald Trump unabashedly denied Russian military presence on Ukrainian territory. All Americans of every ethnicity and political affiliation should be appalled by such reckless comments. Trump has displayed his inherent inability to observe and comprehend the reality of the historical events as they occur before his very eyes. There is no reasonable doubt that Russia has -- in full view of the entire world -- illegally annexed Crimea and it is Russian military and mercenaries who are killing Ukrainian soldiers and civilians daily on Ukrainian soil."
Politics of Ukrainian Diaspora
It's no secret that the current electoral season has given rise to all manner of outlandish, perverse and bizarre political spectacle, and the latest wrinkle involving Trump and Ukraine may prove no exception. But while it's certainly understandable that Ukrainian-Americans have been appalled by Trump's statements on Putin and Ukraine, the Diaspora too can be prone to its own excesses.
Historically, many Ukrainian-Americans have displayed right wing sympathies, and some have even provided financial backing for nationalists linked to controversial World War II figure Stepan Bandera. Reportedly, the Diaspora has even provided funding to none other than Dmitry Yarosh, a paramilitary rightwing figure in Ukraine, and to the infamous Azov Battalion, a volunteer outfit fighting Russian-backed separatists in the east whose members are enthralled with Nazi insignia and iconography.
It is to be hoped that the political right will not shape Ukrainian identity in the midst of war, though Donald Trump has certainly exacerbated tensions through his rhetorical blundering. With both the Diaspora and Trump promoting their own extreme and dangerous points of view, voices of moderation may get frozen out of the spotlight as the Ukrainian conflict becomes more and more volatile and unpredictable.
Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based writer. His booklet, Ukraine's Revolutionary Ghosts, will shortly be released.