Global WA

Ukrainians in Washington Feel Stuck in the Middle

How hearings in DC impact the more than 50,000 Ukrainians living in the state.

By James Ross Gardner December 12, 2019 Published in the January/February 2020 issue of Seattle Met

So, you know how everything—history, politics, where C-Span turns its stolid eye—seems to balance on one thing right now? On whether the man in the Oval Office did or didn’t dangle aid to Ukraine? Yeah, about that. Oksana Bilobran’s got some notes.

A Ukrainian who’s lived in Seattle since 2004, Bilobran doesn’t mind reminding you that the aid was not the president’s—or anyone else’s—to dangle. Yes, an otherwise divided congress approved the nearly $400 million in military and security aid at the heart of the impeachment proceedings. And yes, the president possesses some authority over when and how to issue funds. But the larger historic picture has been lost, she says. Namely the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union.

In 1994, Ukraine held the third largest nuclear arsenal in the world but voluntarily surrendered its nukes after the United States signed a treaty promising to provide Ukraine protection against any outside aggressors.

“[The aid] is not a handout that you’re doing out of pity,” says Bilobran, now a U.S. citizen and a legal advisor for Seattle’s Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs.

That signed document and its promises became all the more critical when, in 2014, Russia invaded its former fellow Soviet Union member in the Crimea region. It’s also why many Ukrainians living in the U.S., including the more than 50,000 in Washington state, may be on edge—and remain mum on the topic.

Nobody wants to talk about it because we’re still hopeful that the United States isn’t going to give up on Ukraine,” Bilobran says. “People aren’t really taking sides and prefer not to talk about it because we need support, whoever’s in the Oval Office.”

Add to that the tensions that already exist within the community regarding support for either the Republican or Democrat party, says another Ukrainian-American, Irene Danysh of Burien. “People try to avoid contentious painful arguments where nobody’s going to convince anybody.”

But Danysh also agrees with Bilobran: Local Ukrainians want to avoid the perception of taking sides. Multiple Ukrainian community leaders declined or didn’t answer Seattle Met’s requests for comment. One response, from the office of regional consul Valeriy Goloborodko, echoed Danysh and Bilobran: “Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Seattle does not comment on internal USA matters.”

Something good, however, may spring from all this. “I’m very proud to see…that Americans are paying attention to Ukraine, understanding a bit more about Ukraine’s plight, Ukraine’s issues,” says Danysh.

“Especially with Russia.”

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