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Local Ukrainians seek stronger US response

Moments after President Obama appeared on television Friday to address the deepening crisis in Ukraine, Alex Burinsky sent a picture of a small, docile bunny to his Twitter followers.

“This is what Barack Obama’s response looks like to” Russia, he wrote.

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Burinsky and other Ukrainian-Americans were following a wild day of news intently, just as they have since the November start of protests in Kiev.

For more than three months, they have been captivated by the growth of a persistent protest movement into a tidal wave of discontent that swept Viktor Yanukovych, pro-Russian president, from power last week.

But Burinsky and other Ukrainian-Americans have been disappointed by the Obama administration’s measured response, saying that even the president’s stern warning that Russia should not intervene was inadequate to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression.

“That was the weakest possible response we could have given,” Burinsky, 26, said in an interview. “The only way Putin will be afraid is if the US Navy sends a fleet there.”

Ukrainian-Americans have also been generally disappointed by what they see as a relative lack of public and media attention on Ukraine, Burinsky and others said, though they have taken the opportunity to educate friends about their ancestral country.

‘Short of an intervention by somebody, Putin is going to take over Crimea. For Ukraine, this is the worst thing that has happened since independence.’

Peter Woloschuk, author covering Ukrainian-Americans 
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“A lot of people are asking me what’s going on, and I’m trying to explain this whole disaster,” Burinsky said. “But on the bright side, people now know it’s not part of Russia. I just wish that attention had come months ago.”

Yanukovych, despised by many Ukrainian-Americans for his violent crackdown on protesters, resurfaced in Russia on Friday after fleeing Kiev days earlier, and called for Moscow to act decisively against Ukraine’s new government.

With a new Ukrainian government only partially in control and reports circulating of a possible Russian military takeover of the majority Russian-speaking region of Crimea, Ukrainian-Americans looked to Obama for a firm counterpunch.

But still, some hesitated to call for decisive military action that could spark a broader war.

“As an American, I absolutely do not want us to put boots on the ground,” said Peter Woloschuk, an author and communications professor who is writing a book about Ukrainian-Americans in Massachusetts. “But short of an intervention by somebody, Putin is going to take over Crimea. For Ukraine, this is the worst thing that has happened since independence.”

The pull of competing loyalties was painful for some.

“The US is supposed to stand for and defend democracies, but I’m not sure whether [military intervention is] the right move for the US right now,” said Vsevolod Petriv, president of the Boston branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America. “Putin’s exploiting the situation and trying to use it for his own gain. I’m hoping the Ukrainian people figure it out and stop it.”

Woloschuk, who is also a former Globe reporter, said he had traveled extensively in Crimea, and remembered the region as a place where ethnic Russians and Ukrainians coexisted peacefully.

That has Woloschuk wondering if Russia is actively stoking tensions as a cover for its power play.

“Throughout 23 years since leaving the Soviet Union, there has never been any violence,” he said. “I saw no signs of any ethnic divide or hostility at all. Integration was at a high level, as was tolerance.”

Distrust of Russia and especially Putin is common, however, among Ukrainian-Americans, who are mindful of Russia’s centuries-long history of dominating its neighbor.

“Russia has no issue saying one thing and then turning around and doing something completely different,” Burinsky said, calling for the United States to end “fruitless” talks with Putin’s government.

But despite the political crisis, flaring tensions with Russia, and the killing of protesters in Kiev by riot police, Burinsky still believes Ukraine is in a better place than it was last fall.

“Ukraine is better off even now,” he said. “I would rather Russia not be in Ukraine, but the corruption of Yanukovych being gone altogether is something we couldn’t have imagined.”

Dan Adams can be reached at dadams@globe.com. Find him on Twitter at @DanielAdams86.
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