New Yorkers have a reputation for standing up for their home city. This came to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic when city residents acted together in the battle against the virus. That same tough mindset supported the city’s Ukrainian community in the days and weeks following Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. What once sounded like a joke or an unlikely scenario became a somber reminder of the brutality of Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and the fragility of young democracies.
The possibility of war in Ukraine was a source of humor in December, when Saturday Night Live did a cold open in which President Biden was briefed on Russian disinformation headlines such as “American CDC strongly recommends Russia invade Ukraine” and “Are you a lonely Ukrainian woman in search of love? A hundred thousand troops are standing by to talk to you,” On February 27, that tone changed in a serious and moving opener featuring the Ukrainian Chorus Dumka of New York, which sang “Prayer for Ukraine,” followed by Kate McKinnon and Cecily Strong doing the show’s iconic introduction while the camera moved to a table on which “Kyiv” was spelled out in votive candles.
Seemingly overnight, New York’s attention turned to Ukraine. The city is home to 150,000 Ukrainian Americans, the largest community in the country, and everywhere New Yorkers turned there were symbols of support for Ukraine. People flocked to Ukrainian businesses and to cultural hubs in “Little Ukraine,” in the East Village, and many attended protests demanding that NATO “close the skies” over Ukraine. On social media, countless New Yorkers shared ways to support the beleaguered nation, from sending monetary donations to supporting institutions such as the Ukrainian Museum.
But now, as the war grinds on in Ukraine, there are signs that interest is waning in America. Peter Rutland, professor of government at Wesleyan University and an expert in contemporary Russian nationalism and politics, tells the Voice in a Zoom interview that although Putin’s regime has always been repressive, if you were a Russian citizen, “you could ignore politics, go about your daily life, and you didn’t have to worry.… But things took a turn for the worse [after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea], and anti-Western rhetoric increased, crackdowns on independent civil society groups increased, and people were designated as foreign agents. And those were all worrying signs. But still, what’s happened since the invasion of February 24 is shocking, because it ratcheted up another level … the mass repression not only of people protesting in the street but also of people making comments on social media, and even teachers in schools and colleges being denounced by their colleagues or by their students…. This was something that was not happening in Putin 1.0…. And it’s back to the Soviet Union in that sense, that kind of Orwellian thought control, which has been implemented since February 24. It’s pretty alarming.”
Rutland goes on to point out that after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine struggled to find a different path from the one that Putin had led Russia down. “Ukraine became a kind of scrappy democracy, with free elections and some turnovers of power through the ballot box. It was very corrupt, with powerful oligarchs and rich businesspeople controlling politicians, buying off politicians, like Russia, but the difference between Ukraine and Russia was that in Russia, they never had the kind of free elections and turnover of power that Ukraine had. Not even in the 1990s. So Ukraine was always more democratic than Russia.”
Russia’s invasion has made some of those differences clear to an American audience, Rutland notes. Videos of Russian tanks blasting across the Ukrainian border and images of missile strikes on civilian targets, such as apartment buildings and maternity hospitals, struck a nerve in the U.S. “The Ukrainian army never invaded anybody, right? They just tried to defend their own country,” says Rutland, adding that, even for “mainstream Republicans, such as they are, given the Trump factor, this is back to the Reagan playbook of evil empires. Russia is the Evil Empire, the United States is standing up against the Evil Empire. Plus there’s the whole defense lobby that the military budget is an instrument of foreign policy, in this case, helping Ukraine.”
“Sometimes people say they’re trying to reconstruct the Soviet Union. No. They’re trying to reconstruct the Russian Empire. Putin has been pretty explicit in saying the Soviet Union was a mistake.”
But for the average American, Rutland says, there can eventually be fatigue with news concerning a war that is half a world away. “You can grab people’s attention with very dramatic things happening now, but then the half-life is very short. The Internet produces these surges of interest that can flare out very quickly, and to some extent the Ukrainians kind of exploited that by clever media campaigns and using social media and the interviews with captured Russian soldiers to keep the media cycle interested. But how long can they? Six months? A year? I think it’s different in Europe. The public here is basically not following it. So there’s a disconnect.”
After the invasion, Ukrainian organizations based in New York had to adjust to an ebb and flow of attention. At the Ukrainian Museum, on East 6th Street, the number of visitors received at the beginning of the war was twice what it had been before the invasion. The museum’s director, Peter Doroshenko, tells the Voice in a phone interview, “There was a great interest from visitors, especially school groups.” As the war in Ukraine gathered more media attention and became ingrained in the lives of New Yorkers, people hungered to learn more about the culture and heritage of the country under attack. The initial spike of visitors to the Ukraine Museum in March continued for the next two months. But since May, says Doroshenko, the museum has received less support. While it still attracts visits, many who come are not from the city the institution calls home. Now the museum has gained the attention of international tourists, from places such as Africa, Asia, and Latin America, who, Doroshenko says, “just want to connect” to Ukrainian culture. “There are a lot of places in the world that have rich histories, and it’s unfortunate that only wars and catastrophes bring that to the forefront of people’s minds.”
As Rutland emphasizes, the Internet and social media can create surges of interest in problems worldwide, such as by documenting the atrocities Ukrainians are seeing inside their own country, and the world’s attention can be grasped for a few weeks or months. But within the constantly changing news cycle, this can be drowned out quickly, a phenomenon reflected in changing levels of donations to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) such as Razom for Ukraine and the Ukrainian National Women’s League of America (UNWLA).
On February 24, Razom, which means “together” in Ukrainian, immediately started organizing protests and events through social media and allocating funds to send to Ukraine. The group organized a protest in Manhattan that very day, which was attended by hundreds. Over the past six months, Razom has organized more than 30 rallies in New York, continued its advocacy work in Washington, D.C., held more than 60 meetings with U.S. senators and representatives, and used the Internet to draw attention to the war. Nonna Tsiganok, a native New Yorker and media relations lead at Razom, tells the Voice in an email exchange, “The support at the beginning of the war was overwhelming in its strength and magnitude.” But in the midst of their efforts to educate the public about the war in Ukraine and to elicit support, there was a shift—the number of people who had attended Razom’s events began decreasing. Still, Tsiganok believes that Razom’s advocacy has “continued to be of the utmost importance.” The organization recently set up an office in D.C., and is working with policymakers to ensure that Ukraine is still a topic of conversation among those in power. And Razom continues to support its partners in Ukraine, providing people on the ground with access to medical supplies, grant programs, evacuation assistance, and any other possible forms of assistance.
“While there are a million things calling our attention in our world today, it is important to make sure that New Yorkers understand that Ukraine was attacked and that what’s going on in Ukraine is a genocide,” says Tsiganok. “The war in Ukraine isn’t political. It’s a humanitarian issue that should speak to our basic understanding of freedom and democracy as Americans.”
“The devastation is horrific. This is really a bleeding edge of the fight for a nation who aspires to be a democratic and Western nation. A nation that believes that people have a right to their destiny and the values that we so furiously protect.”
Putin sees the war as an effort “to defend the existence of Russia from destruction at the hands of the West,” says Rutland, adding that Putin claims his country was “tricked out of its empire” during the collapse of the Soviet Union. “Sometimes people say they’re trying to reconstruct the Soviet Union,” Rutland says of Russia. “No. They’re trying to reconstruct the Russian Empire. Putin has been pretty explicit in saying the Soviet Union was a mistake.”
Despite facing such a relentless aggressor, New York’s Ukrainian NGOs refuse to give up. As Russian forces drew closer to Ukraine in the days leading up to February 24, the UNWLA began sending funds and medical supplies to Ukraine. Since then, the organization has worked to raise money to continue support and awareness of the war. The UNWLA saw six times its average number of donations at the beginning of the war, and raised millions of dollars, according to the NGO’s president, Natalie Pawlenko, a first-generation Ukrainian American. But now, Pawlenko tells the Voice in a phone interview, the UNWLA is receiving half of what was coming in six months ago, which she attributes to “news fatigue” and “donor fatigue,” adding that some people feel they just cannot afford to donate any more money.
Pawlenko says she is trying not to contemplate the idea of the war carrying on for another six months or longer, hoping that it will end sooner. “The devastation is horrific,” she says. “This is really a bleeding edge of the fight for a nation who aspires to be a democratic and Western nation. A nation that believes that people have a right to their destiny and the values that we so furiously protect. People like that deserve to have the support of New Yorkers, and anyone in the world who shares the same values.”
Alongside the attention that NGOs and Ukrainian cultural hubs received at the beginning of the war was the demand for perspective on the conflict through interviews with experts on Russia at organizations such as the Council on Foreign Relations, a nonpartisan, nonprofit think tank. While New Yorkers were donating and supporting Ukraine every day, journalists and leaders worldwide were turning to experts such as Thomas Graham, a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former senior U.S. diplomat whose assignments included two tours of duty at the U.S. embassy in Moscow in the late Soviet period. But over time, the requests for interviews have diminished, Graham tells the Voice over Zoom, and there is less of a focus on the immediate situation in Ukraine. Now, the interest is in how the war will play out over the next few months, and what that will mean for the U.S. “The intense period of focus on Ukraine has ended, for at least some time. We’re in a different phase of the conflict, but there will still be issues as to how the U.S. should position itself, how far the U.S. should go in supporting Ukraine, what the consequences for Russia’s success or Ukraine’s success are for the U.S., and how we should react,” he says. So even with the slowdown in attention, Graham says, “There will be an interest for America for some time.”
But as the war in Ukraine continues, with no end in sight, there might come a time when the conflict slips from mainstream America’s mind more completely. Says Rutland, “Putin, I think, has adjusted to this idea of a long war. And in the long run, the Americans will lose interest, the Europeans will get tired of spending five times as much for their energy as they did last year, and the Europeans will back out of the sanctions one by one. And so Putin is confident he’s winning. It’s unfortunate. I hope he’s wrong, but that’s their strategy. For Ukraine’s supporters in the U.S., it’s very important to push back against that and to keep the interest level up.
“If Putin were to win in Ukraine,” Rutland continues, “that would be really bad news for places like Moldova and Georgia, because they would be next, and it would also be alarming for the Baltics, for Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and even Poland. This is why I think the political elite in the U.S. is committed to the idea of drawing the line in Ukraine. Otherwise, the same problem will come up in a year’s time somewhere else.” Considering the landscape of a shattered Ukraine, Rutland concludes, “Seeing Russia for what it is, as a dangerous, powerful enemy, that’s important for the American people to realize.” ❖
Anna Conkling is a freelance journalist based in New York City whose writing focuses on human interest stories and environmental issues. Since the beginning of the Russian invasion, she has been corresponding with Ukrainian students, soldiers, and civilians and writing about them for the Voice.
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