In Connecticut, growing unease among some Ukrainian-Americans as tensions rise on Russian border

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As reports of a military buildup along Ukraine’s eastern border become increasingly foreboding, some Ukrainian-Americans in Connecticut say they are watching news of a potential Russian invasion with deep concern.

“I’m horrified by what [Russian President Vladimir] Putin is trying to do. I’m hoping sanctions work — from everything I’ve read Russia’s economy is kind of in shambles. Whether Putin is posturing, I don’t know,” said Maria Brandriff of Hamden, who was born to Ukrainian parents in a displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II.

The Ukrainian-American community in the state has not been holding public events so far.

But U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, who two weeks ago was part of a Senate delegation that went to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenksyy, said he hears regularly from Connecticut Ukrainian-Americans calling for stronger support for their ancestral homeland.

“There is a sense of tension and anxiety in the Ukrainian community that is like the one here. I have been in very close contact with Ukrainian-Americans in Connecticut. They’re a powerful voice for freedom and independence for their family and friends in Ukraine,” Blumenthal said Friday.

Some Ukrainian-American community and religious leaders in Connecticut declined to talk publicly Friday about the situation, but two university professors with connections to Ukraine said they are following developments regularly.

“I spoke with several people in Ukraine today to check the pulse on this. My read is that folks are strained, but they are not entirely surprised, and they’re not particularly scared,” said Elena Koulidobrova, an associate professor in linguistics at Central Connecticut State University.

Koulidobrova was born in Ukraine before it gained independence from the Soviet Union; her heritage is Russian, and she does not consider herself Ukrainian. But she said she would side with Ukraine in its conflict with Russia.

“There’s this sense of impending doom here” that her friends in Ukraine don’t share, she said. “There, there’s a feeling that this is being externally heated. It’s a fire created from the outside.”

Koulidobrova said her friends in Ukraine are less alarmed now than immediately after the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

“There isn’t a sense that people are stockpiling now. But with that said, one couple disclosed to me that they’ve had space underneath their garage floor since 2014 — a cellar with sleeping bags and a stockpile,” she said.

Katja Kolcio, an associate professor at Wesleyan University and director of the Allbritton Center, said her contacts in Ukraine fear a so-called hybrid war — involving cyber attacks on the power grid and the internet along with military incursions.

“That can really destabilize social systems. They feel that’s a danger as real as a military invasion,” said Kolcio, the principal American researcher with Vitality Project Donbas, a collaboration between Wesleyan and the NGO Development Foundation that seeks to offset the psychological effects of exhaustion, depression, and social isolation in communities in eastern Ukraine.

“I was just on the phone this morning with a good number of people who were trying to figure out how to survive and live their lives with this impending invasion. They say, ‘We have to continue to live.’ The teachers there are teaching how to talk with children without panic.”

Archbishop Leonard P. Blair presided at a Holy Hour for Peace in Ukraine on Tuesday afternoon at the St. Mary Parish in New Haven, which was attended by Bishop Paul Chomnycky of the Ukrainian Catholic Eparchy of Stamford.

But last week, the websites and online bulletins for several Ukrainian churches in Connecticut made no reference to the situation.

Pastors at New Britain and Stamford churches did not return calls, and a man identifying himself as the pastor at St. Mary in Colchester declined to comment. Richard Wanik, president of the Ukrainian Home in Hartford, said he wasn’t comfortable speaking of a political issue.

Blumenthal, however, said the Ukrainian-Americans he knows are strong defenders of Ukraine. Blumenthal and Sen. Chris Murphy were part of a bipartisan group of senators that traveled to Ukraine to demonstrate solidarity. They have been pressing President Joe Biden’s administration to speed the sale of more lethal weapons to Ukraine, including Stinger and Javelin missiles.

“Those are the kinds of weapons the Ukrainians need to defend themselves. Ukraine has been fighting a long eight-year struggle against Russian military action,” he said.

“I’ve come back from Ukraine with stronger and deeper support than ever for Ukrainians and their homeland — people who feel threatened so deeply and dangerously. I strongly believe we should have sanctions right now — export controls, end Putin’s supply of semiconductors, disconnect his financial system from the world framework.”

Brandriff, who still has relatives living in Ukraine, said she’s trying to stay optimistic that sanctions would succeed. She said she’s concerned that some Ukrainian-Americans aren’t more troubled by developments.

“Some Ukrainians have swallowed the right-wing rhetoric. It just amazes me,” she said. “My parents escaped Ukraine during World War II because my father was an outspoken patriot — he had been imprisoned more than once, both under Poles and Russians. I grew up with this horror of communism. When I see an authoritarian like Putin just decide to grab what he wants to grab, it’s unconscionable.”