Ever since their nation became independent in 1991, many Ukrainians expected the Russians would return — but that doesn’t make the crisis in their homeland any less terrifying.
Tatiana “Tania” Gajecky of Lakewood has more than 100 family members in Ukraine, mostly in the western city of Lviv. Her family participated in recent demonstrations, and now she intensely waits to see if more blood will be shed.
“It’s scary,” the 65-year-old said. “Putin is taunting the world.”
There have been problems with phone connections since the crisis started last month, but Gajecky said she spoke to her family in Ukraine at the end of February.
“They say they are upset, but also hopeful,” she said.
Some family and friends living in Lviv traveled more than 300 miles to the capital of Kiev to join in the protests.
“They feel very strongly about what they are doing,” she said.
Gajecky, who received her masters from Harvard University in Slavic languages and literatures, was born in a refugee camp in Austria after her parents fled Ukraine to avoid Joseph Stalin’s Red Army during World War II, she said. Now, history seems to be repeating itself.
Shortly after the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russian forces moved into Crimea, a peninsula that juts from southern Ukraine into the Black Sea, Their arrival was sparked by the ouster of pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, accused by protesters of corruption.
Yanukovych fled to Russia after deadly clashes between the government and the growing opposition, especially in Kiev. Yanukovych claims he is still the leader of Ukraine. Putin agrees.
Olena Ruth, 34, a native Ukrainian who has lived in America since 2003, said most of her family lives in Kiev, and she has been calling them twice a day since the crisis began.
“They are really happy about what happened with Yanukovych being gone, but fear that the corruption will return as former members of parliament try to reclaim their seats,” Ruth said.
For the moment, most of the tension is in Crimea, but should the peninsula be annexed by the Russians, her family dreads the worst, she said.
“My mother fears that with time, (Putin) will get Kiev,” she said.
She estimated that about 30 percent of the 70,000 immigrants from the former Soviet Union that live in the Denver metro area are from the Ukraine.
Irina Serenchenko, a 22-year-old University of Colorado-Denver student, and native Russian, said the conflict is devastating to watch unfold on the news.
“I have visited Ukraine many times, and I love my homeland, so I want this to just end peacefully,” she said. “I know what these people look like, who they are.”
Serenchenko’s family came to America in 2001 on a refugee visa, she said.
The conflict has divided her Russian and Ukrainian friends, leaving her in the middle, Serenchenko said. But, she still has an opinion.
“Personally, what Putin is doing is concerning,” she said. “I am worried that if he gets Ukraine, he won’t stop there.”
Gajecky said that if Russia continues to “force its will” on the people, a majority of Ukrainians hope, possibly even expect, countries such as the United States to intervene.
Matjaz Bren, a professor of international business at Regis University, said Americans should be paying attention to what is occurring, but he said most are not — at least, not yet.
“Americans, for the most part, are not interested in what is happening in other parts of the world,” he said. “But, a conflict like this doesn’t punch you in the face, it punches you in the kidneys, and you will go down from that, too.”
The larger picture Americans should be aware of is the growing friction between two nuclear powers.
“There has to be a personal cost for Americans to care,” he said. “But, yes, they should start paying attention now.”
Gajecky said U.S. imposed sanctions may work, but many Ukrainians believe this was a calculated move by Putin in an attempt to reclaim Russia’s place as a premier world power.
Political Science professor and Post-Soviet Studies expert Christoph Stefes of the University of Colorado-Denver said he believes that is exactly what is occurring.
“There is no doubt about this,” Stefes said. “Putin has clearly put his foot down in an attempt to build his spheres of influence.”
For protestors, including family and friends of Gajecky, the bottom line is they will not be intimidated or submit to Russia, she said. The people will stand up and fight for their new way of life, which is only 23 years old, Gajecky said.
“It is in the anthem they sing: ‘We will lay down our soul, our body, for our liberty’,” Gajecky said.