Justin Rymaruk distilled decades of murky Ukrainian-Russian tensions and the recent military takeover of the Crimean peninsula into one simple adage.
“You don’t feed the bear,” he said. “You just don’t do it.”
Rymaruk held a big blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag in Amsterdam City Hall on Friday. Gathered were a few dozen other local Ukrainian-Americans, meeting in an effort to keep public attention focused on the conflict in Ukraine.
The small crowd filled the old hall with the confident syllables of Ukraine’s national anthem. Some were elders with clear memories of the mother country. Some, like Rymaruk, were born in America. All belted out each line in perfect Ukrainian.
Members of Amsterdam’s large Ukrainian population watched plenty of news over the past few months. Protests in Kiev, the riot shields and firebombs, and most recently the Russian military invasion of Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula — scores watched from Amsterdam with very personal interest.
Prompted by the large Ukrainian population, Amsterdam Mayor Ann Thane read a proclamation Friday supporting U.S. efforts to discourage Russia’s aggression.
The U.S. government has taken certain steps, restricting visas and imposing sanctions on Russia, but without continued public awareness and pressure, many in the crowd said, things will just get worse.
“The security of the United States relies on the spread of democracy,” Thane said, “not a failed empire bent on renewal.”
Amsterdam resident Mary Conrad made a slightly more direct statement.
“[Russian President Vladimir Putin] is a tyrant and a jerk,” she said. “He wants an empire. He wants to rebuild the USSR.”
Conrad was born in Germany because her Ukrainian parents were rounded up and forced to work in concentration camps. Ukraine has a long history of tragedy — brushes with tyranny nearly capable of washing away the culture. Those brushes with culture death kept generations of immigrants holding tight to their traditions and identity.
Conrad has lived 62 of her 72 years in America. But she considers herself Ukrainian, as does Roman Karpishka, who was born and raised in Canada.
At Friday’s gathering, Karpishka also held a large flag, chatting first in Ukrainian, then English.
“Unmarked troops that are absolutely Russian are holding back the election observers,” he said.
Later this month, voters in the Crimean peninsula, which sits in the Black Sea between Ukraine and Russia, will decide which country they want to be a part of. Currently, Crimea operates as an autonomous republic within Ukraine, but citizens could vote to become part of Russia. Karpishka is nervous about it.
He traveled to Ukraine 20 times as an election observer over the past few decades, making sure things ran without fraud. He saw plenty of election rigging attempts on those trips, he said, and figures the upcoming Crimean peninsula vote will be the same.
“How are we supposed to have a fair election without observers?” he said.
Conrad wasn’t as concerned about rigged votes. She’s pretty sure Crimea will just vote to join Russia by an honest majority.
“There are a lot of Russians in Crimea,” she said.
Despite a likely voting majority, she said Crimea legally belongs to Ukraine, and just handing it over to Russia would set a precedent. In Rymaruk’s terms, allowing Crimea to leave Ukraine in favor of Russia would be like tossing a steak at a hungry grizzly bear.
“If Putin gets a peace of Ukraine,” Conrad said, “he’ll want another. He was in the KGB. He’s programmed that way.”
While many at the gathering view Russia’s encroachment as a threat to Ukraine’s fairly recent political freedom, a few were just as concerned about their new homeland.
“This is the beginning of the cold war, part two,” Karpishka said.
Rymaruk compared Putin’s recent actions to those of Adolph Hitler before World War II.
If not dealt with now, he said, Americans will eventually look at a map of Europe and see Russia.
“The bear always wants more,” he said.