For Gainesville resident Danny Tymchuk and his family, the upheaval in Ukraine gives them an eerie sense of déjà vu.
Tymchuk’s family has deep historical ties to Ukraine. His father hails from the western part of the country, which is culturally and linguistically Ukrainian, and where demonstrations emerged in recent months that ultimately ousted the corrupt regime of Kremlin-backed President Viktor Yanukovych.
“In many respects, I’ve got this connection with Eastern Europe,” said Tymchuk, a teacher at Riverside Military Academy, “but I’m very much a North Georgia kid in many ways, as well.”
Tymchuk described the events now taking place in Ukraine, which has seen Russia occupy the region of Crimea and threaten further military aggression, as emotional for his entire family.
“It’s hard for me to watch because I don’t want my father to have to see his country come under Russian influence again,” he said. “The Tymchuks, for 100 years, have been fighting communism.”
On Monday, Russia called for a national unity deal in Ukraine even as it tightened its stranglehold over Crimea, a bold combination of diplomacy and escalating military pressure. The U.S. and European Union floundered for solutions — while global markets panicked over the prospect of violent upheaval in the heart of Europe.
Fears grew that the Kremlin might carry out more land grabs in pro-Russian eastern Ukraine, adding urgency to Western efforts to defuse the crisis. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading to Kiev in an expression of support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and the EU threatened a raft of punitive measures as it called an emergency summit on Ukraine for Thursday.
The latest affront by Russia has caused trepidation among Ukrainian-Americans, many of whom came to the United States only in the last two decades after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
“Everybody is outraged by what Russia is doing,” said Laryssa Temple, an Atlanta resident and local liaison for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, a nonprofit umbrella organization that promotes the interests of America’s ethnic Ukrainians. “Of course, there is a tremendous amount of angst about what’s happening.”
Tymchuk expressed similar sentiments. His father’s cousin is currently visiting the United States from Ukraine. He told Tymchuk he would rather die in Ukraine for the cause of democracy and freedom from Russian influence than live free in America, a feeling Tymchuk called “patriotic.”
Tymchuk’s family helped care for Jews in Ukraine during World War II, fighting against both Nazi incursion and Communist Russian influence. They came to America after the war, seeking the freedom denied them in their homeland.
Tymchuk, who describes himself as having a deep patriotic streak for American ways and ideals, said he fears Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military intentions echo those of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin, who used similar rationale about protecting citizens in foreign lands as a means to war and occupation. It appears memories of World War II and the days of the Cold War are flashing back in the minds of many Ukrainian-Americans.
“The Balkans are very vulnerable as well,” Tymchuk said. “My thought is Putin could easily gobble up other areas within the next two years.”
Those fears, in part, stem from the fact Russia appears to be driving the agenda.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said at a U.N. Human Rights Council session in Geneva that Ukraine should return to an agreement signed last month by Yanukovych — but not Moscow — to hold early elections and surrender some powers. Yanukovych fled the country after sealing the pact with the opposition and foreign ministers of France, Germany and Poland.
Meanwhile, Ukrainian authorities said Russian troops had issued an ultimatum for two Ukrainian warships to surrender or be seized — prompting the country’s acting president to accuse Russia of “piracy.”
Ukraine’s corvette Ternopil and the command ship Slavutych were being blocked by four Russian navy ships in Sevastopol’s harbor, a Ukrainian military spokesman said.
Acting President Oleksandr Turchynov said commanders and crew were “ready to defend their ships. ... They are defending Ukraine.”
Tymchuk said he believes the United States and European nations have a duty to enforce the 1994 Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, which gave Ukraine territorial sovereignty in exchange for destroying its stockpiles of nuclear weapons.
Russia is “on the wrong side of history” in Ukraine, President Barack Obama said Monday, adding continued military action would be “a costly proposition for Russia.”
Speaking to reporters in the Oval Office, Obama said the U.S. was considering economic and diplomatic options that will isolate Russia, and called on Congress to work on an aid package for Ukraine.
Still, it was not clear what the West could do to make Russia back down. The clearest weapon at the disposal of the EU and U.S. appeared to be economic sanctions that would freeze Russian assets and pull the plug on multibillion-dollar deals with Russia. Late Monday, the EU threatened to freeze visa liberalization and economic cooperation talks and boycott the G-8 summit in Russia if Moscow does not back down.
Already the economic fallout for Russia was being intensely felt: Russia’s stock market dropped about 10 percent on Monday and its currency fell to its lowest point ever against the dollar.
But the economic consequences of antagonizing Russia were also acute for Western Europe: The EU relies heavily on Russian natural gas flowing through a network of Ukrainian and other pipelines.
By Monday, it was clear Russia had complete operational control of Crimea.
Russian soldiers controlled all Crimean border posts, as well as all military facilities in the territory. Troops also controlled a ferry terminal in the Crimean city of Kerch, 12 miles across the water from Russia. That intensified fears in Kiev that Moscow would send even more troops into the peninsula via that route.
Ukraine’s prime minister admitted his country had “no military options on the table” to reverse Russia’s military moves into Crimea.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk appealed for outside help and said Crimea remained part of his country, as European foreign ministers held an emergency meeting on a joint response to Russia’s military push into Crimea.
“Any attempt of Russia to grab Crimea will have no success at all. Give us some time,” he said at a news conference with British Foreign Secretary William Hague.
The fears in the Ukrainian capital and beyond are that Russia might seek to expand its control by seizing other parts of Ukraine in the pro-Russian east of the country, the country’s industrial powerhouse and agricultural breadbasket.
Hague said “the world cannot just allow this to happen.” But he, like other Western diplomats, ruled out any military action. “The U.K. is not discussing military options. Our concentration is on diplomatic and economic pressure.”
Faced with fears of more Russian aggression, Ukraine’s new government has moved to consolidate its authority, naming new regional governors in the pro-Russia east picked among the country’s wealthy businessmen.
By putting influential oligarchs in control of key eastern provinces, Kiev appears to be hoping Russian-leaning citizens will be more willing to remain within the Ukrainian fold.
Tension between Ukraine and Moscow rose sharply after Yanukovych was pushed out by a protest movement among people who wanted closer ties with the European Union. Yanukovych fled to Russia after more than 80 demonstrators were killed near Kiev’s central square. He says he is still president.
Putin’s confidence in his Ukraine strategy is underpinned by the knowledge the nation’s 46 million people have divided loyalties. While much of western Ukraine wants closer ties with the 28-nation European Union, its eastern and southern regions look to Russia for support.
Crimea is where Russia feels most at home in Ukraine: It is home to 2 million mostly Russian-speaking people and landlord for Russia’s critical Black Sea Fleet at Sevastopol.
But Temple and the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America believe the divisions between west and east Ukraine had been overplayed in the media. Just last week, she noted, Ukrainian speakers in a city in the western half of the country spoke only Russian for a day, while Russian speakers in a city in the eastern part of the country only spoke Ukrainian, a show of solidarity between the two sides. Also, Temple said demonstrations outside CNN in recent weeks and a candlelight vigil to be held at Emory University later this week show just how much Americans and the nation’s Ukrainian population oppose Russian attempts to divide and conquer.
“In the news, you constantly hear about the divisions,” Temple said. “There is a large amount of support for Ukraine as a single nation, for not dividing anything up.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.