At the end of a Sunday church service in Garner, the priest offered a prayer for the peaceful resolution of an intensifying conflict in eastern Ukraine.
The prayer, like most of the mass, was in Ukrainian.
About 45 people from Wake Forest to Angier gathered for the regular Sunday service of the Sts. Volodymyr and Olha Ukrainian Catholic Church. Many of their minds dwelt on a situation about 5,500 miles away from their Raleigh-area homes. However, in some cases the conflict was much closer to homes of family and friends.
Many worry about what may lie ahead for that country with Russia’s apparent invasion. More than one emphasized the importance of referring to said “situation” without any euphemism.
“It’s war,” said Vasyl Yavdoshnyak, a truck driver who lives in Wake Forest. “I don’t know what (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and Russia seem to want to call it, but it’s war.”
Yavdoshnyak still has family in western Ukraine and just visited them last month, he said. He moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., about 18 years ago and has been in the Triangle for about 16 years. He agrees with analysts who believe Russia wants to take over Ukraine’s access to the Sea of Azov, a move that would have major port and mineral-rights implications.
About 2,600 people have died in fighting between pro-Russia separatists and Ukrainian forces. In the last few days military equipment – including tanks believed to be Russian by virtually everyone except Russia’s government, which has consistently denied involvement in the conflict – have been seen entering eastern Ukraine. NATO believes some 1,000 Russian soldiers have crossed the border to assist rebels.
The conflict comes on the heels of Russia annexing the Crimean peninsula in the wake of instability and riots in Kiev over the alleged corruption and Russian-leaning nature of then-Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych. (Many Ukrainians favor stronger ties with Western Europe.) Crimea has an ethnic Russian majority. The Eastern Ukraine has a sizable Russian minority (ranging in eastern states from 25 to 39 percent) according to the most recent Ukraine census in 2001.
‘You won’t be invaded’
Paul Wasylkevych’s parents were born in Ukraine, though he was born in the U.S. His uncle, Major Archbishop emeritus and Cardinal Lubomyr Husar, was a Ukrainian-born, U.S.-educated high-ranking church leader and remains in Kiev, where he retired.
Wasylkevych said he began working to cobble together a Ukrainian community in the Raleigh area nearly three decades ago. The church was established about seven years ago, and the church owns land and a shed on White Oak Road near Interstate 40, just south of municipal Garner. (The shed isn’t usable for the congregation’s purposes, according to Wake County, so the church is borrowing St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Garner for services until a suitable building can be built.)
Wasylkevych said the community, by and large, has similar feelings about recent events, particularly about the recent invasion.
“Everyone here’s on the same page. We’re a peaceful nation. And Putin has chosen to destroy all the goodwill from the Olympic Games in a few weeks,” he said, referring to the annexation of Crimea back in February, not long after the Winter Games in Sochi.
Wasylkevych pointed to the 1994 Budapest Memorandums for context. When Ukraine’s 1991 vote for independence became a pivotal moment in the fall of the Soviet Union, the second-most powerful Soviet nation was home to about a third of the USSR stockpile of nuclear weapons. The U.S., Great Britain and Russia signed an agreement in which Ukraine would remove all nuclear materials from the Ukraine.
One aspect of the agreement: the powers all agreed to “respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine.”
“They said ‘give up your weapons, and you’ll never be invaded,’ ” Wasylkevych said.
‘No one knows’
Other congregants backed up his assertion on where the community stood. The most recent immigrants spoke marginal English, but others, like Michael Szulak, had Ukranian parents who immigrated to the U.S. before they were born.
“I wish the E.U. would take stronger action; the sanctions don’t seem to be making a difference,” said Szulak, who would like to see the west provide military advisers and materials to “outgunned” Ukrainian forces.
The European Union said it is working on new sanctions, but Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said the country can’t afford to wait. European countries worry about losing Russian natural gas supplies, especially in advance of winter. Russia has already banned food imports in response to sanctions against dozens of key Russian individuals and businesses in an economic tit-for-tat that has so far done little to de-escalate the crisis.
At the church, as with the rest of the world, uncertainty seems to remain the only certainty. Yavdoshnyak, the truck driver, said that while it’s apparent Putin wants to recreate the Soviet empire, it’s unknown what part of the former Soviet Union Putin might next jump into after forays into Ukraine and Georgia, which Russia invaded in a 2008 conflict.
“No one knows what Putin has in mind, who’s going to be next,” he said.