The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Ukrainian American Rep. Spartz takes on leading role in Republican response to Russian invasion of her home country

Rep. Victoria Spartz, 43, has joined her Republican colleagues in harshly criticizing Biden for his handling of the Ukrainian crisis, including for not imposing sanctions on Russia before the invasion

Ukraine-born Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a "genocide" and called on President Biden to do more. (Video: The Washington Post)

Rep. Victoria Spartz (R-Ind.) never thought that she would have the life she has now.

Growing up in Ukraine when it was a Soviet republic, she did not imagine immigrating to the United States at the age of 21 after falling in love with an American she met on a train while living in Kyiv. Once in Noblesville, Ind., Spartz said she prioritized raising her two daughters before becoming an accountant and then embracing public service, first as a state senator and then getting elected to Congress in 2020.

It never crossed her mind that she would serve in Congress at a time when her home country was being invaded by Russia.

“I never wanted to think that I would have to deal with a crisis like that. I never, you know, thought that I’d be in the place where I am. Sometimes it makes me wonder if God has a reason for that,” Spartz said in an interview. “I want to be an asset for our country, to be helpful to deal with this situation. I have that experience.”

As the first Ukrainian-born immigrant to serve in the U.S. Congress, the freshman lawmaker has taken a leading role for Republicans in voicing both the horror of what the world is witnessing during the Russian invasion and arguing for what the United States should do in response. On Tuesday night, she will be part of the group of lawmakers who will escort President Biden into the House chamber for a State of the Union address that is expected to focus heavily on the conflict happening in her home country.

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Spartz, 43, has joined her Republican colleagues in harshly criticizing Biden for his handling of the Ukrainian crisis, including for not imposing sanctions on Russia before the invasion — a move the White House has said would not have deterred Russian President Vladmir Putin and may have caused him to invade earlier.

“So I think we have an obligation and duty to save this world, save Ukrainian people to survive and this president needs to get his act together and exercise some leadership. What is happening under his watch is atrocity. What he’s doing to this country and the world is unforgivable,” she said at a House Republican news conference Tuesday. “But I think we will get together as Republican and Democrat but he must act decisively fast or blood of many Ukrainians will be on his hand too.”

The White House has pushed back against these criticisms, noting that Biden worked with European allies to hit Moscow, as well as Putin personally, with harsh sanctions in an attempt to cripple Russia’s economy.

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And while Spartz has been heavily critical of Biden, she has been less so of former president Donald Trump, who was impeached in 2019 but later acquitted by the Senate for withholding military aid and a White House visit for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as he pushed for an investigation into the activities of Hunter Biden, President Biden’s son, in Ukraine.

She was reluctant in an interview to criticize Trump for his recent comments about how Putin has handled his decision to invade Ukraine saying it was “genius,” “pretty savvy” and “pretty smart” because “he’s taking over a country for $2 worth of sanctions.”

Spartz said she doesn’t “always like how he expresses his language,” but she thinks Trump is correct on the premise that Putin is clever, often fooling the United States and the rest of the world to react rather than counter him on the front end.

“We’re always not just two steps behind, but 10 steps behind,” she said. “He really utilizes our weaknesses to his ambitions and advantages.”

Spartz was elected in 2020 running on a small government platform and arguing that Democrats were becoming the party of socialism. She and eight other GOP freshmen established the “Freedom Force” to counter the liberal “Squad.” Besides Spartz, the group also includes three other Republicans whose families fled communist Cuba, including Reps. Maria Elvira Salazar (R-Fla.), Carlos A. Gimenez (R-Fla.) and Nicole Malliotakis (R-N.Y.).

She had spent her fist term in Congress mostly focusing on domestic issues until the crisis broke out in Ukraine.

Spartz said she has been proactive in pitching herself as a helpful asset to the administration. In recent weeks, she reminded Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark A. Milley in separate phone calls of how her unique experience growing up Ukraine, her fluency in both Russian and Ukrainian and her understanding of how politicians work abroad could be of help to them.

She said she also made a direct appeal to the White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, whose family hails from her district. Her response to speak with Klain has gone unanswered and others in the administration haven’t followed up on her calls.

“That’s all you can do,” she said of her calls.

Spartz has focused most of her efforts on trying to bring home the seriousness of the attack on Ukraine to her House Republican colleagues and has spoken twice during recent weekly conference meetings, including Tuesday.

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She has joined some of her GOP colleagues in calling for the United States and its allies to find ways to cut off their reliance on Russian oil and gas supplies while boosting oil and gas drilling in the United States.

During a meeting with the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus on Monday, Ukrainian ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova pleaded with members for the United States to stop receiving oil imports from Russia.

“She pretty much said, you know, ‘every drop of oil and gas is full of Ukrainian blood and you’re not even talking about doing anything. You’re still buying Russian energy,'” Spartz recalled.

Another issue Congress will have to answer is a potential refugee crisis as more Ukrainians flee their country. Spartz has joined a growing list of House Republicans who have called for applying relaxed immigration rules to Ukrainian refugees so they can come to the United States.

Spartz said her current focus on the invasion and the active role she is playing in Congress has taken her away from checking in with family and friends who remain abroad.

“I’ve talked to some people, some acquaintances, but I didn’t really even have much time to call people. It’s hard to even call people because people are sitting underground. A lot of their phones now the batteries are dead,” she said. “I’ve been so busy dealing with all of this here, so ultimately, I cannot do much to help them there.”

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She said the personal toll on her is “very difficult,” especially as she sees herself in the faces of mothers trying to protect their young children from the cruel realities of war.

“It’s a devastating when you see that. It doesn’t matter which country it is, you know, it’s sad. Such a loss of life about nothing. You have one person holding the whole world hostage,” she said.

But she said she believes in the resilience of the Ukrainian people despite the grave danger they face.

“I hope things will get better; you have to always stay optimistic. But as I said, it’s a David-versus-Goliath fight,” she said. “In the long run, Ukrainians are not going to surrender. Ukrainians are just not going to submit. Russia is going to lose at the end, but it will cost a lot of lives.”