The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Ukrainian Americans overpower the isolationist impulses of Trump-era GOP

Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) speaks with Reps. Steve Scalise (R-La.), left, and Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), right, before President Biden delivers his State of the Union address on March 1. (J. Scott Applewhite/AP/Pool)

Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.), the first Ukrainian-born immigrant to serve in Congress, has emerged as an unlikely voice inside the GOP amid Russia’s invasion of her native land. She appeared at news conferences alongside House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) on Tuesday and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) on Wednesday, where she read aloud from messages that have kept her cellphone buzzing day and night. “They’re just killing us like we are animals,” a Spartz friend texted.

Spartz, who moved to the United States at age 21 after falling in love with a Hoosier she met on a train while living in Kyiv, is among an estimated 1.1 million Ukrainian Americans, a bright blue-and-yellow patch in our national quilt. This diaspora happens to be disproportionately concentrated in urban areas of politically significant Midwestern states, from Cleveland to Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia. And they’re providing a vital counterweight to the isolationist, nativist and populist impulses of the Trump-era Republican Party — and to our politics in general.

In fact, instead of arguing for staying out of the conflict altogether, as an alarming number of “America First” acolytes with megaphones were doing just days ago, Republican politicians increasingly criticize President Biden for not doing more to assist Ukraine. This is a positive role for the opposition party to play. By returning to its hawkish roots on national security, the GOP is helping Washington project resolve to Moscow — and our allies.

Ukrainians immigrated to the United States in four waves: for jobs during the Industrial Revolution, to flee Soviet persecution after a failed 1918 bid for independence, as refugees in the wake of World War II and following the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1991. Familial bonds deepened after the Cold War ended because it became easier to travel back and forth.

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The politics of Eastern European immigrants have never been easy for either party to navigate. Democrats suffered for years after President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s concessions to Joseph Stalin at Yalta. President Gerald Ford’s bid for a full term in 1976 was hurt when he insisted during a presidential debate that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. (This gaffe probably cost him Ohio and Wisconsin.) And President George H.W. Bush was damaged at home in the 1992 election by his infamous “Chicken Kiev” speech, in which he urged Ukraine to stay in Russia’s fold while warning against “suicidal nationalism.”

President Donald Trump’s outspoken regard for Vladimir Putin and his shakedown of President Volodymyr Zelensky, which led to his first impeachment, took Republicans down some very bad roads with Ukrainian American voters. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) is Polish but has been one of Ukraine’s biggest champions on Capitol Hill for decades. She is co-chair of the congressional Ukraine Caucus, while Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) is a co-chair of its Senate counterpart. Both of them spoke during a rally on Sunday at St. Vladimir Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral in Parma, a suburb of Cleveland and one of the biggest Ukrainian communities in the country.

Portman is retiring, and there’s a wide-open Republican primary approaching to replace him. One of the candidates, “Hillbilly Elegy” author J.D. Vance, garnered national attention recently for saying: “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine one way or another.” Since then, he seems to have learned that there are about 80,000 Ukrainian American voters in Ohio. Now he’s calling Putin “an evil man” and saying the invasion is “unquestionably a tragedy.”

Communities such as Parma are preparing for an influx of Ukrainian refugees in the coming months. Portman released a letter on Tuesday, signed by most Democratic senators, calling for Biden to grant temporary protected status to Ukrainians in the United States so they don’t have to go home. “We are all Ukrainians,” he said on the Senate floor.

Andriy Futey, the Ohio-based president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said Ukrainian Americans are rarely single-issue voters, but 2022 might be different. “I could see that alone being a determinant factor when people go to vote,” he said.

What is certain is that politicians of all stripes will be working hard to win their votes. In his news conference with Spartz, Graham proposed a congressional resolution that would make it the official position of the U.S. government that Russian leaders should be prosecuted by the International Criminal Court. Touting that tribunal is not something Republicans typically do.

But these are not typical times, and so Republicans are singing a different tune. “It’s political malpractice not to get our crap together,” Graham said. “Putin’s not a genius. He’s a war criminal.”

War in Ukraine: What you need to know

The latest: Russia claimed to have seized control of Soledar, a heavily contested salt-mining town in eastern Ukraine where fighting has raged recently, but a Ukrainian military official maintained that the battle was not yet over. The U.S. and Germany are sending tanks to Ukraine.

Russia’s Gamble: The Post examined the road to war in Ukraine, and Western efforts to unite to thwart the Kremlin’s plans, through extensive interviews with more than three dozen senior U.S., Ukrainian, European and NATO officials.

Photos: Washington Post photographers have been on the ground from the beginning of the war — here’s some of their most powerful work.

How you can help: Here are ways those in the U.S. can support the Ukrainian people as well as what people around the world have been donating.

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