'Betrayal': Ukrainian Americans distressed over stalled military aid for Zelenskyy’s fight against Putin

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Irene Komarynsky, a retired obstetrician and gynecologist who lives in Connecticut, vividly remembers the groundswell of support for Ukraine after Russia’s brutal invasion of the country in February 2022. The blue-and-yellow flags flying over suburban houses. The public fascination with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the comedian-turned-war chief.

But that was two long years ago. These days, Komarynsky finds herself awake in the middle of the night worrying about the fate of the country where her parents were born. She is “heartbroken and demoralized” that some congressional Republicans have blocked military aid to Ukraine — reinforcement that Zelenskyy’s government and the White House insist is needed to repel Moscow’s forces and prevent more civilian deaths.

“I’ve felt helpless against this tide,” said Komarynsky, 70.

In interviews this week, Ukrainian Americans across the U.S. expressed their deep dismay with Congress’ repeated failure to authorize a new round of military assistance to Kyiv and voiced fear that Russian President Vladimir Putin could rapidly gain the upper hand in the conflict.

Several of the people who were interviewed said they recognized that the attention of the American public is being pulled in other directions, too — the grinding war between Israel and Hamas, the humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip, the influx of migrants at the U.S. border with Mexico, the likely electoral rematch between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump.

“I think there’s a certain fatigue with Ukraine and the war. It seems to have faded,” Komarynsky said. “I feel that some of our congressmen and senators treat Ukraine like a TV show that was very exciting in the first season, and now it’s the second season and they’re bored and they want to cancel it.”

U.S. aid in doubt

In a stunning move Tuesday, GOP senators scuttled a border security bill that had been bundled with $60.1 billion in military aid to Ukraine and $14.1 billion in security assistance to Israel. (Republicans had demanded that any legislation to provide more resources to Zelenskyy’s government be paired with a bill that would clamp down on the migrant flow at the border, but they later bailed on a deal that would have done exactly that.) Senate Republicans shot down the border bill Wednesday.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., said Wednesday afternoon that he would bring up a bill focused strictly on aid for Israel and Ukraine, without any border security provisions. But the Senate ended the day at an impasse, with the Democratic majority still short of the 60 votes needed to forge ahead. Even if the bill passes the Senate, its fate is deeply unclear in the GOP-controlled House.

Kateryna Sabanska Melillo, a family therapist who moved from Ukraine to Connecticut in 2014, said she was “devastated” when she learned that the House bill had been thrown out. Every night, her phone fills up with dozens of text messages from family members and friends in Ukraine who are “frantic” about Russian bombing campaigns and other attacks. This week has been no different.

In recent months, a growing number of congressional Republicans have registered their skepticism about giving more help to Ukraine, vocally questioning whether doing so serves U.S. interests. Trump, who has pushed for a more isolationist posture toward the war in Europe, recently accused Biden of putting “America last” and “Ukraine first.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., a firebrand “MAGA” lawmaker, has threatened to oust House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., if he brings to the floor any bills that include money for Ukraine.

“The dysfunction in Congress renders the ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan an empty platitude,” Komarynsky said. “Ukraine has been nothing more than a pawn in the negotiation of a border deal.”

Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden walk down the colonnade to the Oval Office during a visit to the White House. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)
Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden walk down the colonnade to the Oval Office during a visit to the White House. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Dr. George Jaskiw, 67, a psychiatrist and professor at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, whose parents fled Ukraine during World War II, said he was “shocked and alarmed” that American support for Zelenskyy’s fight has become yet another partisan football.

“I see this not as a parochial issue for the Ukrainian American diaspora but as an existential issue for the United States,” Jaskiw said. “Basically, Russia is an arsonist with a trail of gasoline leading from Pyongyang to Tehran to Moscow. The security and the prosperity of our country depends on the international world order that’s held since World War II. Russia is burning it down. Ukraine is the firewall.”

Evolving attitudes

Gallup polling found a shift in American public opinion around the war. Forty-one percent of Americans surveyed from Oct. 4 to Oct. 16 said the U.S. was doing too much to help Ukraine, an increase from 24% in August 2022 and 29% in June 2023, according to a summary of the poll published in early November. Thirty-three percent of respondents said the U.S. was doing the right amount; 25% believed the U.S. wasn’t doing enough, according to Gallup’s summary.

The poll also found a clear partisan divide: Increasingly, Republicans (62%) and independents (44%) believed the U.S. was doing too much to boost Ukraine, compared to when Gallup started asking the question in August 2022. (The poll found that just 14% of Democrats surveyed in October thought the U.S. was doing too much.)

Dr. Andrew Ripecky, a physician at a Veterans Affairs hospital in suburban Chicago, said the U.S. risks badly undermining its role as a trustworthy anchor for global security if it “reneges on its promise” to stand with Ukraine. Andrew Fedynsky, the director of the Ukrainian Museum-Archives in Cleveland, put it more bluntly: “It would be a betrayal.”

Biden’s top aides have made it clear to lawmakers that the consequences of failing to authorize additional aid to Ukraine could be dire. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan and the director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, told lawmakers last month that Ukraine would soon run out of certain air defense and artillery capabilities, two people familiar with the meeting have told NBC News.

Russia could win the war in a matter of weeks, the officials warned.

In interviews, Ukrainian Americans said they appreciated Biden’s shows of solidarity with Ukraine’s resistance. Ivan Perkhalyuk, a resident of Staten Island, New York, who emigrated from Ukraine to the U.S. in 1998, offered his personal thanks. However, some implored Biden to use his bully pulpit more forcefully.

“We need the administration to speak to the people of the United States more often so they understand why Ukraine is so important,” said Marta Farion, a retired attorney who lives in Chicago.

In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for the National Security Council directed NBC News to Biden’s numerous public statements about the urgent need to approve Ukraine aid — most recently on Tuesday, when he delivered remarks calling on Congress to pass the Emergency National Security Supplemental Appropriations Act.

“The clock is ticking. Every week, every month that passes without new aid to Ukraine means fewer artillery shells, fewer air defense systems, fewer tools for Ukraine to defend itself against this Russian onslaught — just what Putin wants,” Biden said in part.

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com