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The myth of a powerful Ukrainian diaspora was proven wrong by Russia’s invasion

Western military aid flows into Ukraine, with public and elite opinion firmly on Kyiv’s side. But the Ukrainian diaspora has not driven this support, despite its Cold War reputation.
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NEW YORK CITY, USA – 04 MARCH 2022: Ukrainian citizens protests on Times Square against the war after Russia started the invasion of Ukraine. — Photo by JANIFEST/ Depositphotos
The myth of a powerful Ukrainian diaspora was proven wrong by Russia’s invasion

Nearly two years have elapsed since Russia’s unsanctioned invasion of Ukraine, yet the expected galvanization of the Ukrainian diaspora is not to be seen. Indeed, their influence on Western policy making towards Ukraine in countries where they reside has been limited.

Western countries that have most supported Ukraine militarily, such as Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and the three Baltic states have very small Ukrainian diasporas or none. Poland, a major contributor and facilitator of military aid to Ukraine, has done so because of geopolitical factors and a national consensus that Russia is a threat to its security. The UK had the largest Ukrainian diaspora in western Europe during the Cold War, but its lobbying is not the reason Britain has led the way in providing tanks, long-range missiles, and training to Ukraine. Russophilism has never had an electoral base in Britain, unlike on the European continent, even among Brexit supporters.

Canada, the country with what is considered to have the most influential Ukrainian diaspora, has been a major disappointment in its tepid military support for Ukraine. The Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora has little influence over Canadian political elites which includes very few Ukrainian-Canadians. The Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora, unlike others in Canada, has never invested into encouraging, training, and supporting politics, either within Canada or in academia and think tanks more generally to deal with contemporary Ukraine. Instead, Ukrainian-Canadians have focused on historical areas, such as the Holodomor, and Canada has published excellent histories of Ukraine and Ukrainian historical topics by Paul R. Magocsi, Orest Subtelny, and Myroslaw Shkandrij.

Canada has barely any political scientists with expertise on contemporary Ukraine. Worse still, the Chair of Ukrainian Studies at the University of Ottawa, led by Dominique Arel, published Ukraine’s Unnamed War earlier this year with Jesse Driscoll that described the conflict in Ukraine from 2014 until the 2022 invasion as a ‘civil war,’ a claim taken straight out of the Kremlin’s disinformation arsenal. The Ukrainian-Canadian community also weakly countered the disinformation campaign surrounding ‘Ukrainian Nazis’ following President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s recent speech to the Canadian parliament.

Only 5% of Ukrainians believe Canada has provided sufficient military assistance to Ukraine compared to over 65% crediting Poland, the US, and the UK. 58%, 50%, and 49% of Ukrainians respectively believe US President Joe Biden, Polish President Andrzej Duda and former US Prime Minister Borys Johnson were the most supportive Western leaders of Ukraine. Only 4% believe Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has supported Ukraine.

The small size of Canada’s army and military budget means there is little military equipment to donate to Ukraine. Trudeau told NATO that Canada will never meet NATO’s two percent of GDP defence spending target adopted in 2006. Although Canada has little to donate it does though have the financial resources that could be used to purchase military equipment for Ukraine. Two thirds of Ukrainians believe Poland, the US, and UK provide large volumes of military assistance to Ukraine while only 3% believe this of Canada, according to a poll by the IRI (International Republican Institute).

Trudeau has made poor decisions and reacted timidly to the Russian invasion. Meanwhile, his Ukrainian-Canadian deputy Chrystia Freeland has, surprisingly been largely absent from public view on the war. At a time when Ukraine is fighting an existential war against Russia, the Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora, once a powerful influential force during the Cold War, has shown itself unable to influence the Trudeau government which faced sharp criticism for agreeing to Canada servicing a Nord Stream turbine, the controversial gas pipeline from Russia to Germany. Zelenskyy slammed Canada for breaking sanctions against Russia, saying ‘The decision on the exception to sanctions will be perceived in Russia exclusively as a manifestation of weakness.’

While the US has led the way in providing military assistance to Ukraine this has been sent in a drip-drip fashion since Russia launched its invasion. After the 2014 annexation of Crimea and first invasion of Ukraine that year, President Barack Obama vetoed the sending of military equipment to Ukraine. President Donald Trump did not impose a veto but the type of military assistance that was sent, such as javelins and stingers, was colored by the widespread Western view that Ukraine would be quickly defeated by Russia and the equipment needed to be tailored for a partisan war.

About half of House Republicans recently opposed a $300 million aid package for Ukraine, in an early indication of the direction a Trump administration could adopt to slow down or even end military aid to Ukraine. Trump Republicans have been at the forefront of seeking to cut $6 billion meant for Ukrainian military assistance from the proposed budget.

Historically, research has shown that eastern European ethnic groups, including Ukrainians, have not been particularly influential in shaping US foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Notwithstanding notable figures like Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security advisor with Polish roots, eastern European lobbies, particularly Ukrainians, have been unable to exert significant influence over Washington’s corridors of power.

This is especially the case when we compare the highly successful Israeli and Armenian lobbies in the US with that of Ukrainian-Americans. US foreign policy, particularly concerning the Middle East, has been more shaped by the interests of the Israeli lobby than by American national interests.

The Armenian community in the US has notably shaped American support towards Armenia over Azerbaijan in the south Caucasus with Congress heeding the concerns of its Armenian-American constituents. Furthermore, the Armenian lobby has historically forged pivotal alliances in Washington against Azerbaijan, an energy rich country, and Türkiye, an important NATO member.

There is little evidence lobbying by Ukrainian-Americans has been able to change the politics of military aid to Ukraine, whether to end Biden’s drip-drip approach or persuade Trump populist nationalists to end their opposition to the provision of military aid. Take the case of US Ohio Senator, Republican J.D. Vance who stated in 2022 that ‘I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another’ and yet, he went on to win the election. Ohio is home to a large Ukrainian community.

A significant portion of Ukraine’s diaspora in the US subscribes to a Reagan-style Republicanism and many are at a crossroads as the Republican Party continues to grow more isolationist and some of its representatives becoming even pro-Russian. Trump recently said he’s pleased by Putin’s praise to ‘resolve all burning issues within several days,’ promising to end Russia’s war against Ukraine in one day.

The generational factor is also at work in making the Ukrainian diaspora less influential. Ukrainians who arrived in the West after World War II were largely from western Ukraine and they were highly organized, strongly anti-Soviet and anti-Russian, and philanthropic. Born in the inter-war period or earlier, they have largely passed away.

Their siblings are far less philanthropic, more materialistic and self-centered. Unlike Serbs, Croats and Armenians from their diaspora’s only a handful of Ukrainians travelled to Ukraine to fight against Russia since 2014. Ukrainian nationalism in the Ukrainian diaspora has been shown to be a paper tiger, not a roaring lion, especially compared to the resilience of Ukrainians fighting Russian imperialism in Ukraine.

High rates of assimilation of younger Ukrainians also reduces the pool of volunteer activists and financial support. At a time when second and third generation Ukrainians are overloaded with news from Ukraine on 24-hour television channels and social media, few of them participate as volunteers and lobbying governments. Many in the Ukrainian diaspora, like some of our own friends, have not chosen to volunteer, donate financially, or offer shelter to refugees from Ukraine.

During the 1990s, a significant number of Ukrainians migrated to the US, but their historical distrust of government, rooted in their oppression under the Soviet Union, kept them politically detached from both the Ukrainian diaspora, officials and political representatives. This mistrust was deepened by their experiences, especially among Protestant Evangelicals, who had to practice their faith clandestinely due to Soviet repression of religion.

Many of the recent emigrants from Ukraine are often disinterested in Ukraine and do not attend public events in Ukrainian centers or protest actions. In the United States, much of the Ukrainian diaspora that has immigrated in the past few decades, such as Ukrainian Protestants, are largely disinterested in what is happening generally ‘back home’ in Ukraine and with the war.

During the Cold War the Ukrainian diaspora was one the largest and most active among the many diasporas from the captive nations of the former Soviet empire. Since the 1990s their influence has progressively declined; this can and should change when Ukraine is facing an existential fight for its very survival as an independent state and a Ukrainian people. There is still time for the hitherto timid response of the Ukrainian diaspora to change. The Ukrainian diaspora in the US, Canada, and UK should support Ukraine as it fights to liberate Russian-occupied land and the Ukrainian people who are suffering from terror, torture, and war crimes.

We suggest five concrete steps.

The first is to set aside time to assist the many volunteer groups in the US, Canada, and UK, which have been set up by members of the diaspora and good-hearted people outside, that are supporting Ukraine with humanitarian and military assistance. Becoming involved can include giving up time, promoting the work of these volunteer groups in the media and providing individual financial donations or lobbying businesses and others to provide them.

We should also consider donating to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s United 24 funds and other foundations in Ukraine that are working to assist Ukrainian civilians and the Ukrainian military. David Kirichenko has used his own tens of thousands of dollars of his own funds supplies to buy supplies for soldiers, including drones and Starlinks that he delivered to the Ukrainian military in August. Taras Kuzio’s $25,000 prize awarded by the Petersen Literary Fund for his book Russian Nationalism and the Russian-Ukrainian War was entirely used to support the Ukrainian military which he personally delivered to Ukrainian soldiers in June.

The second is to become involved in local, provincial/state, and federal/national politics and lobby politicians to continue their countries economic, financial, social, and military support to Ukraine. This is especially urgent in the US where pro-Trump populists are pro-Russian. The Ukrainian-Canadian diaspora should diplomatically warn the Liberal Party that it stands to lose the support of Ukrainians, Poles, Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians and others in Canada if Trudeau continues to provide weak support for Ukraine. Canada may have a small defense budget, but Canada is a wealthy country and is capable of financially purchasing military equipment and air defense for Ukraine.

The Hamas terrorist attack is likely to change Israel’s hitherto unwillingness to militarily support Ukraine. The Hamas terrorist attack on Israel provides us with an opportunity to argue that the Russia-Iran-North Korea anti-Western axis of evil seeks the destruction of both Ukraine and Israel.

The third is write letters to the media and write blogs and commentaries for the media at all levels to keep Ukraine in the news. Join Facebook, Twitter (X) and other social media to promote Ukraine’s case through posts, reposting of tweets. Write comments on other people’s posts. Be especially vigilant in countering pro-Russian posts on social media, such as calls for Ukraine to give up territory in exchange for peace. Humor is a weapon, and we should use it to ridicule posts by Kremlin spokesmen and war criminal Vladimir Putin.

The fourth is we should lobby academics in the US, Canada, and UK, to follow the example of Yale University Professor Timothy Snyder who has been truly outstanding as a public intellectual and fund raiser for United 24. Snyder’s lecture series ‘The Making of Modern Ukraine’ has been viewed over a million times on YouTube. University of Toronto Chair of Ukrainian Studies Professor Paul R. R. Magocsi has undertaken a tremendous service by preparing lengthy reports for the International Court of Justice, the United Nations court in Holland where Ukraine has taken Russia to task over war crimes and ethnic discrimination.

Academics at other Ukrainian centers in the US and Canada should be encouraged to be less passive and follow Snyder’s example and become active public intellectuals and fund raisers. With University of Ottawa’s Chair of Ukrainian Studies Dominique Arel promoting Russian disinformation, Ukrainian-Canadians should be calling for a financial and physical boycott of the Chair and its annual Danyliw Research Seminar.

Finally, members of the diaspora should urge Ukrainian diaspora organizations to be less passive and more pro-active in lobbying politicians and countering Kremlin and Russophile disinformation.

The Ukrainian people have shown tremendous courage, resilience, and patriotism in the face of Russia’s genocidal war against Ukraine. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has proven that he is without question Ukraine’s ‘Winston Churchill’. The Ukrainian diaspora cannot stand aside from the battle for Ukraine’s very survival.

Many in the Ukrainian diaspora have done a great amount of work to help Ukraine and will continue to do so, but there will always be more that can be done, especially in playing a larger role in policy making. We are confident that Ukraine – with the help of the diaspora – will achieve military victory over barbaric Russian imperialism and its genocidal aims. We owe it to our ancestors to defeat Russia once and for all.

David Kirichenko is a freelance journalist covering Ukraine and Eastern Europe. He can be found on the social media platform X @DVKirichenko.
Taras Kuzio is professor of political science at the National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and an Associate Research Fellow at the Henry Jackson Society.
Professor in the Department of Political Science, National University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy and Non-Resident Fellow, Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University. Author of Putin’s War Against Ukraine (2017, 2019).


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