Ukrainians in Colorado rally to support homeland as Polis says state will ensure it’s not supporting Russia

As Russian troops waged war on their homeland, Ukrainians living in Colorado came together in solidarity outside the state Capitol on Thursday and Gov. Jared Polis announced the state will work to ensure it’s not financially supporting the Kremlin in any way.

Scores of people waving Ukrainian flags and hoisting signs bearing slogans including “Putin! Hands off Ukraine!” and “Support Ukraine, save democracy in the world!” filled the Capitol’s front steps. Colorado is home to about 11,000 Ukrainians, the governor’s office said.

Oleksandra Chub, 27, moved to Denver from Ukraine three years ago for work. She slogged through a sleepless night as she contacted family and friends in Ukraine amid explosions from attacks launched by Russian troops.

“They’re safe right now, but I don’t know what can happen tomorrow,” Chub said. “I’m really afraid, and I can’t go home. This is not a conflict. This is a full-scale war.”

Gov. Jared Polis announced new state actions Thursday in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. He condemned Russian President Vladimir Putin, urging Congress to suspend the federal gas tax and “double down on a rapid clean energy transition to ensure that our energy future cannot be tied to geopolitical conflicts and global commodities,” according to a news release from the governor’s office.

“Colorado will not stand for this attack on freedom and democracy,” Polis said in a statement. “Our country must make Putin pay and continue to use our economic power to push back on Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine.”

Polis said Colorado will welcome Ukrainian refugees and examine whether the state has any contracts or investments with Russian entities that it should end or divest from, and urge higher education institutions to review and reconsider any grants or projects tied with Russia.

The governor’s office said it will look “to ensure that agencies are in no way supporting the Russian government.”

President Joe Biden ordered broad new sanctions targeting Russia on Thursday, saying Putin “chose this war” and his country will bear the consequences.

The U.S. and its allies will block assets of four large Russian banks, impose export controls and sanction oligarchs, Biden said, adding that the U.S. also will deploy about 7,000 troops to Germany to bolster NATO after the Ukraine invasion.

Ken Osgood, a Colorado School of Mines history professor with expertise in U.S.-Russian relations, said when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 and people celebrated the end of the Cold War, one concern was what to do with the large number of nuclear weapons in Ukraine.

The United States pushed Ukrainians to return the nuclear weapons to Russia, Osgood said, and the Ukrainians did. In return, Osgood said the U.S. and Russia pledged to honor and protect Ukrainian sovereignty.

“Americans committed to the defense of Ukraine and so did Russia, but now Putin has ripped that agreement up,” Osgood said. “The challenge for Americans is are we willing to take some of the pain it would take to tell Putin to stop — primarily economic pain. Oil prices, natural gas prices. There will be a lot of domestic political pressure on Biden to find some way to deal with the economic pain. Putin is thinking he can take the economic pain better than the U.S. can. I’m hoping he’s not right.”

Max Khomutskyi, of Lakewood, barely took his eyes off his phone at the Colorado Capitol as he shared how his Ukrainian family — his mother, brother and brother’s family — evacuated the Ukrainian capital Thursday morning after waking up to the sounds of bombs.

“We should stop Putin or else this is going to be a huge war,” Khomutskyi said. “I am hurting. I’m feeling exhausted that I’m here and I can’t help them.”

Dasha Zallis, a 26-year-old Denverite, is originally from Russia and still has family living there. Zallis joined Ukrainian supporters Thursday and burst into tears when asked why she attended the rally.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Zallis said. “Putin is to blame. What he’s doing is cruel to the Ukrainian people. I just want all of this to stop.”

Kateryna Popova, a 37-year-old Ukrainian living in Castle Pines, said she couldn’t sleep all night as she tried getting in contact with her mother, father and extended family in Ukraine.

“My mom answered and said she was in a bomb shelter,” Popova said. “It’s crazy.”

Popova canceled a vacation to Miami she was intending to take.

“It’s not a time to be relaxed right now,” Popova said. “I am afraid that soon there will be no internet or connection to them.”

Markian Hawryluk, a first-generation Ukrainian-American and a Colorado-based journalist with Kaiser Health News, said he hopes Americans think of the crisis as an American issue rather than a Ukrainian issue.

“A lot of people might not be familiar with Ukraine,” Hawryluk said. “It’s far away. People you’ve never met. But… this is a fundamental shift in the world situation. It’s broken a peace that we had since World War II, a peace that American soldiers fought for to establish and make the world a safer place. When Russia invades a democratic country with no provocation and no animosity toward Russia, it upsets the world order. If we don’t now stand up for the oppressed, who is going to stand up when we are the oppressed ones?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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