Their relatives are at war 5,000 miles away.
In the USA, though, residents who identify with their Russian heritage and those who identify with their Ukrainian heritage express strikingly similar views about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, a pair of exclusive USA TODAY / Suffolk University polls finds. The two groups are united in their opposition to Russian President Vladimir Putin and the war raging on his orders.
The invasion is opposed by nearly everyone in both groups: 87% of Russian Americans and 94% of Ukrainian Americans. Those of Russian descent have a more positive view of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (72%) than they do of Putin (6%). By 9-1, they say Putin should be removed from office.
“Somebody just needs to extract him,” says Dina Sarkisova, 44, who owns a spa in San Diego and participated in the survey. Half-Russian and half-Azeri, she came to the USA as a refugee in 1990, fleeing conflict in Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed. “There’s no reasoning with him.”
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“It’s a travesty; it’s a nightmare,” says Jacob Plotkin, 68, a Ukrainian American from Boca Raton, Florida, who works in real estate and agreed to a follow-up interview after being polled. “A big guy picking on a little kid. It’s wrong.”
The outrage of Ukrainian Americans is no surprise as they watch their homeland hammered by a Russian onslaught of tanks and missiles. But there is also strong support among Russian Americans for sending military hardware to be used against Russians on the battlefield (55%) and for imposing very strict economic sanctions (59%) that will hurt those who live in Russia, including members of their families .
Many of the Russians immigrated to the USA to flee the Soviet Union and the communist system Putin has defended. The poll findings underscore his isolation not only among global leaders but also among those with roots in his nation.
“Since the Russian Federation invaded Ukraine Feb. 24, some Russian restaurants and businesses throughout the United States have been boycotted or vandalized by Americans angry with Putin’s invasion of Ukraine,” says David Paleologos, director of the Suffolk Political Research Center. “Yet in their frustration with the war, Americans’ anger may be misdirected at other Americans who share those very frustrations.”
USA TODAY and Suffolk University surveyed 500 US residents who identify with their Russian heritage and 500 residents who identify with their Ukrainian heritage. Some are American citizens and some are not. The polls, taken by landline and cellphone March 5-10, have margins of error of plus or minus 4.4 percentage points.
Far away and close to home
The war is not a distant debate for many of those called in the poll. Nearly half of those of Ukrainian descent (48%) report having relatives fighting in Ukraine. So do one in five (19%) of those of Russian descent.
Olga Rudenko, 49, an artist who emigrated from Ukraine in 2002 and lives in Harlem, has loaded on her phone the Ukrainian air alerts that warn of approaching attacks there.
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“So I know when my mom needs to go to the shelter and what’s going on,” she says, “because I need to check in the morning if she’s alive, if she was not bombed.” Her mother does not have a smartphone, so Rudenko checks on her through an aunt who lives in another Ukrainian town.
She begins to cry as she talks about her family, then stops herself. “I do not have any right to cry,” she says. “I’m not the one who’s bombed.”
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There are differences between Russian Americans and Ukrainian Americans on some issues, including whether an expanding NATO represents a threat to Russian security, an argument that Putin made to defend the invasion. Those who identify with their Ukrainian heritage say by nearly 3-1 (63% -22%) that NATO does not pose a threat. Those who identify with their Russian heritage are more closely divided: 38% say it does; 48% say it does not.
“This is a serious problem from the perspective of Russians because obviously you do not want your capital, not to mention some of your other major population centers, in close missile range to NATO,” says Artem Joukov, 31, a doctoral candidate at the University of Texas at Dallas who emigrated from Russia as a child.
He does not see stakes for the United States that warrant imposing sanctions and deploying additional troops to Eastern Europe. “It is possible in foreign policy to not take a position,” he says.
Victor Shevchuk, 53, an engineer from Richardson, Texas, who is Ukrainian American, says that as a sovereign nation, Ukraine should be able to make its own decisions on whether to join NATO.
“It’s a very complex and tricky situation, especially since Russia has nuclear power and that Vladimir Putin seems to be a bit unhinged,” he says. “I’d like to see us help Ukraine as much as possible without triggering WWIII.”
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In the face of Ukrainian resistance, Putin has moved to “more and more extreme measures,” he says.
The invasion of Ukraine has soured the views of many Russian Americans toward Putin. Nearly two-thirds (63%) say their view of him is worse than before the attacks in February. Among the respondents who have talked with family members in the region in recent weeks, 7 in 10 say those relatives had a generally unfavorable view of Putin.
Ninety percent of Ukrainian Americans and 70% of Russian Americans say Putin should be charged with war crimes.
Is the US doing enough?
Many of those surveyed want the United States to do more.
Half of Russian Americans say the United States is not doing enough in the conflict; 7 of 10 Ukrainian Americans agree. Just 13% of Russian Americans and 2% of Ukrainian Americans say the United States is doing too much.
President Joe Biden gets mediocre approval ratings for his handling of the conflict: 40% approve-43% disapprove among those of Russian descent; 35% approve-49% disapprove among those of Ukrainian descent.
“We need a leader, not a tip-toe,” says Tara Shvetzov, who lives in Beeville, South Texas. Her father immigrated from Russia. A veteran of the US Army who served in the Iraq War, she says the botched US withdrawal from Afghanistan last year may have opened the door for the invasion of Ukraine. “It gives the bullies that opportunity to say ‘They show weakness, and we take advantage of that weakness,'” she says.
Most of those surveyed, 67% of Russian Americans and 57% of Ukrainian Americans, predict the crisis in Ukraine is the start of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia. Or worse: Two-thirds of each group are “very” or “somewhat” worried that direct military confrontation between the two nations could be sparked.
Yevgeniya Valchuk, 39, who moved to the USA 15 years ago and lives in San Francisco, calls the Russian invasion inevitable.
“Everybody in Ukraine knew it would happen,” she says, “based on the history that Ukraine has and how the Russians behave and how the Russian president behaved within the last 30 years.” She notes Putin’s aggressive actions in Syria and elsewhere.
“He took everything he wanted, and right now the only one that is standing is Ukraine,” she says.
Those on the battlefield standing against him include her younger brother and sister.