2 years following Russia's invasion, Ukrainians in Triangle support, raise funds for home country

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Friday, February 23, 2024
2 years following invasion, Triangle Ukrainians continue support
On Saturday, the Ukrainian Association of North Carolina is hosting a vigil and rally at the Old Capitol in downtown Raleigh, an event that is open to the public.

DURHAM, N.C. (WTVD) -- Inside the Fred Astaire Dance Studio in Durham, the music and choreography are a welcome respite for the largely Ukrainian team of instructors.

"There are a lot of people involved even from the dancing community who are on the front lines or even in the army who sometimes unfortunately die. I see all this news and it's very hard," said Serhiy Titarenko, who is from Poltava in the central part of the country.

"All my family was running under bombs. And so (they) left everything except on the car. This was the only one way to escape with the time," said Nataliia Rusachenko, a colleague whose family is from Donetsk, near the border with Russia.

The studio has held events to raise money to support those affected by the fighting. Both Titarenko and Rusachenko were living and working in the United States at the time of the invasion, though they have remained in constant communication with loved ones in Ukraine.

"I'm very terrified because I know that during the night, the during the day, they can have some bad situations," Rusachenko said of attacks on Kiev, where her family fled to after Donetsk was targeted.

"My 90-year-old grandma stayed in a basement with 4,000 other people with no water, no electricity, and no gas. And the worst thing, no connection. So at some point, you pray that the bomb does not kill your parents and your grandma," said Nataliia Bondarenko, who was living in Ukraine at the time.

Bondarenko had left her home one day before the invasion to pick up her son from a volleyball tournament.

"The next day, Hostomel and the building where I lived in was fully occupied by Russian troops," said Bondarenko.

In 2014, during Russia's initial invasion and annexation of Crimea, Bondarenko volunteered at a military hospital. Though she did not initially have plans to leave the country during this fighting, she eventually did, first to Europe and then the United States.

Now, she's working as the International Outreach Coordinator at the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies, helping to draw attention to the ongoing fighting.

"I think it's maybe easier for me and for them because if we compare (this to) the first weeks or maybe first month of the war, we were afraid. We didn't have any plans, we didn't know what to expect. We were terrified. Now I think we are quite resilient and resistant and we know what we are fighting for. We know the enemy, we know we know what to do. Everybody has his or her own zones of responsibility. I don't think I'm a good fighter in terms of battlefield, but I can be doing advocacy on Ukraine here, or I can be fundraising for drones to send to my friends from the battlefields," said Bondarenko.

A UN report states there have been more than 30,000 Ukrainian civilian casualties, amongst heavy damages to hospitals, schools, and residential buildings in the past two years. Though the Ukrainian military has been able to largely withstand Russia's forces thus far, there is growing concern about mounting losses and a lack of future financial support from other nations.

"The Russians have 10 shells for every one that the Ukrainians are able to fire, in part because we've not been holding up our end of the deal to support them," said Graeme Robertson, the Director of the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies.

Robertson said he believes the American public remains firmly supportive of Ukraine but current political debates on Capitol Hill have created a murky picture of future defense capabilities. Multiple US officials have acknowledged without a new aid bill, Ukraine could face shortages of ammo and defense capabilities as soon as the spring.

"This is not about giving the Ukrainians money. This is about giving them ammunition and weapons which we buy from ourselves. This is spending American money on American companies producing American-made equipment, and the Ukrainians will use it for us to fight the Russians," Robertson said.

While Russia has suffered heavy losses to its military forces, it continues to press on.

"If Russia is not stopped here, Russia will have to be stopped somewhere else. And so this is for Ukrainians existential, but for Americans, it's extremely important," said Robertson.

Friday, the White House released hundreds of new sanctions against Russia, which came one week after the death of imprisoned opposition leader Alexei Navalny. President Joe Biden, who laid responsibility for Navalny's death on Russian President Vladimir Putin, said the measures would target the country's economy amidst efforts to hamper their abilities to continue fighting.

Robertson, who spoke with ABC11 before the announcement of these latest sanctions, said prior sanctions have ultimately been unsuccessful in limiting Russia's military aggression.

"They've shifted to a wartime economy. Our sanctions have had limited effect. And so the Russians' offensive capacity, I think, remains extremely strong. We shouldn't underestimate that and we shouldn't underestimate their willingness and desire to keep fighting for as long as it takes. Putin is a dictator. He doesn't pay much in the way of domestic costs for this," said Robertson.

"Ukraine values democracy. We are ready to fight for our independence," Bondarenko said.

On Saturday, the Ukrainian Association of North Carolina is hosting a vigil and rally at the Old Capitol in downtown Raleigh beginning at 4 p.m. The event is open to the public.

On Feb. 29, the UNC Center for Slavic, Eurasian, and East European Studies is holding a screening of 20 Days in Mariupol, which captured on-the-ground footage from the beginning of the war.

Following the screening, there will be a Q & A session with a field producer. The event begins at 5:30 p.m. at the Global Education Center Mandela Auditorium on UNC's campus, with organizers requesting those interested in attending to RSVP.