Impeachment sets up Ukrainian Americans for 2020 political role
Ukrainian Americans, who have seen President Trump and GOP lawmakers repeatedly slam their former country as a center of corruption, could play a pivotal role in next year’s presidential election.
Highly educated and politically engaged, Ukrainian Americans have large population numbers in key swing states.
Most of the 1 million to 1.5 million Ukrainian Americans live in California and New York, but more than 100,000 reside in swing-state Pennsylvania — a state Trump won in 2016 by less than 45,000 votes. Another 64,000 people in Florida claim Ukrainian heritage.
Many of those U.S. citizens have seen an opportunity to raise awareness and understanding about their home country, but are anguished over attacks on Ukraine that took center stage in the House impeachment drama.
“I think people might worry and, justified if so, if this will affect U.S. and Ukraine relations in a negative way,” said Andrij Dobriansky, spokesman for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (UCCA), the largest political advocacy organization for Ukrainian Americans.
Beyond the complaints about corruption, Trump has attacked a war hero from the Ukrainian American community while repeating debunked accusations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
There is no comprehensive data on voting trends or political leanings in the community, though people active with Ukrainian American groups say many likely backed Trump in the 2016 election, which took place in the years after Ukraine ousted a pro-Russia president and saw Moscow take over the Crimea region.
President Obama’s failure to visit Ukraine during any period of his presidency and the delivery of non-lethal aid to Ukraine’s military, turned some Ukrainian Americans against the Democratic Party.
“The fact that Obama wouldn’t go and visit Ukraine, especially during that critical period, that was a very big deal for us,” Dobriansky said.
To date, about 14,000 Ukrainians have died in the fighting, with millions more made internal refugees. The Trump administration has provided lethal support to Ukrainian troops battling Russian backed separatists in eastern Ukraine.
But a key part of the impeachment drama is the delay in security aid to Ukraine as Trump sought to get that country’s leaders to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
Trump and Republicans also went after Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a career army officer with Ukrainian heritage who earned the Purple Heart serving in Iraq and immigrated to the U.S. from the former Soviet Union as a toddler.
Vindman, the director of European Affairs with the National Security Council, testified in front of House investigators last month that it was “inappropriate” for Trump to demand a foreign government investigate domestic political opponent.
The president, the GOP and right-wing media sought to undermine Vindman’s credibility by raising charges of dual-loyalty with Ukraine and highlighting testimony by his superior of “concerns” over the army officer’s judgement.
“We definitely drew a line,” Dobriansky of the UCCA said, over the attacks on Vindman. “Especially since our organization includes the Ukrainian American Veterans, we’ve always had strong relations with law enforcement in this country, so a lot of our membership was very upset.”
Interviews with people in the politically active Ukrainian American community say typically fervent and outspoken support for Trump has gone quiet over the course of the impeachment inquiries. People are not outright condemning the president, community members say, but they are not jumping to his defense either.
Also inflaming passions is the president pushing a false conspiracy that it was the Ukrainian government, and not Russia, that hacked the Democratic National Committee’s server in 2016.
Many are equally unhappy with Trump’s calls to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to the U.S. and his generally favorable attitude toward the former KGB agent.
“For our community, the big thing is Putin coming,” said Dobriansky, who suggested people would travel by bus to Washington to protest a Putin visit.
Opposition against Russia is possibly the strongest thread uniting the community. In the 1930s, the Soviet Union instituted a genocide of forced starvation — called the Holodomor — against Ukrainians for their refusal to join in collective farming.
“For even those people in the Ukrainian community who still support Trump, it most certainly is not without the awareness and the conviction of Russian meddling in the United States,” said U.R., a self-described life-long Republican who is “shaken” by the revelations in the impeachment inquiry and Trump’s general approach to foreign policy. He asked his name be withheld to protect the bipartisan nature of his work.
“In terms of my discussions, there are still some who are deeply committed to Trump. I think it’s more hope than anything else,” he said. “My informed guess would be that the vast majority of those have really abandoned the ship, so to speak.”
Ukrainian Americans don’t reflect the typical base of Trump supporters. While generally older — more than 60 percent are age 45 and older — they outperform the general U.S. population on education, wealth and home ownership, according to Oleh Wolowyna, director of the Center for Demographic and Socio-Economic Research of Ukrainians in the U.S. with the Shevchenko Scientific Society.
“Bottom line, all indicators, Ukrainians are way ahead of average U.S. population, especially education, that’s the biggest difference, and interestingly enough females are doing even better than males,” he said.
Yet many were drawn to voting for Trump in 2016 as a counter to a Democratic party viewed as swinging too far left. A strong economy, low unemployment and rolling back of federal regulations are domestic policies that continue to appeal to the community.
“They don’t believe in welfare,” Wolowyna said.
Democrats failing to identify strong foreign policy issues could be a missed opportunity to attract a base of not only Ukrainian Americans, but a wider swath of American immigrants from Eastern Europe equally concerned with Russian expansionism and Putin’s threats to the U.S.
Dobriansky of the UCCA says that foreign policy has barely registered in most of the Democratic debates and Republicans may abandon mentioning Ukraine to avoid talks of the impeachment.
“I’m worried about Ukraine being forgotten on that side with the platform,” he said. “Then, with the president’s public statements, we’re worried he might veto any inclusion of Ukraine in Republican platform.”
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