By Dr. John P. Dolan
Associate Professor, Intelligence Studies at American Public University
The international crisis in Ukraine has created friction in local American communities. Events in Crimea and Eastern Ukraine have impacted relationships between immigrants from the Former Soviet Union (FSU) some six thousand miles away—in Colorado.
Members of the Russian community have traditionally gathered for numerous events in Monument, Colorado, located along the front range of the Rocky Mountains near Pikes Peak. Local picnics, cinema nights, birthdays and holiday events have allowed members to connect on a regular basis. Except for some traditional events, most activities have been open to the entire family. The themes vary from business and cultural events to art, health and tips on local services or shopping. Special nights are dedicated to environmental issues, politics or the threat of genetically modified foods to public health.
Local Russian, Ukrainian, Moldovan, Georgian, Belarus, Tajik and other nationalities share the same faith and attend the local Orthodox Church in Colorado Springs. It does not specifically serve those of the Ukrainian, Georgian, or Russian Orthodox churches, but it is open to all Orthodox faiths. Common interests, culture and religion have brought this group from the FSU cultures together. However, it’s apparent that the politics of their homeland is fragmenting this local group.
Some 80,000 FSU immigrants reside in Denver. Since the 1970s, there has been a consistent increase as a matter of normal immigration patterns. Just 50 miles south in Colorado Springs, the FSU population has a slightly different makeup. There are families, business people and educators—but the largest group of FSU immigrants is military spouses, since there are five large installations in close proximity. Though most are U.S. Air Force bases, the largest installation is Fort Carson, with nearly 20,000 service members. The spouses of active-duty and retired service members throughout the community have been able to locate each other through the small local European market, gyms, word-of-mouth and the Internet. With the exception of limited television, these are the same methods community members use to receive information about current events impacting the community.
Many local Russian speakers are limited to a single Russian television station called RT, a large network known for its bias and use as a propaganda tool for the Russian government. Many rely on social media sites like VKontakte, which has recently come under control of Putin supporters who insist that access by Russian intelligence is essential to national security. Others within the group watch American or British news and scour the Internet for information on current events. Those with a broader understanding of the English language are less limited in their access to information. Some individuals who have been in the U.S. for nearly 20 years are often hindered by their poor language skills and depend solely upon the Russian broadcast. They appear bound by the early Soviet propaganda model.
The tensions are increasing in Monument as a Russian-backed insurgency spreads in Eastern Ukraine. While there is a common picture of the general event, the purpose, timeline and perpetrators are all factors subject to interpretation. Those from Russia see this as a just cause. The Russian invasion was to protect innocent Russians from members of an aggressive ultranationalist movement which displaced the legitimate government in Kiev. They see the regional moves for autonomy as a right to return to an earlier time and forge closer connections to Russia. Most in the Monument camp would argue that it is a relationship that should have remained intact.
Ukrainians see the issue much differently. They view the situation as a popular uprising of the Russian speaking population as an obvious attempt by President Vladimir Putin to expand Russian borders at the expense of its weaker neighbors. They see Russian troops flooding into Crimea (under a pretense of assistance to a majority population that is in danger from a largely unarmed central government) as a sham to secure control of a sea port and tourist area. They fear an even larger threat that sits along the Eastern border of Ukraine where nearly a third of the border is subject to added aggression from Russian forces.
Natives of countries like Georgia and Belarus are sympathetic to and supportive of Ukraine. Those from other breakaway nations see the situation as a familiar theme. The current actions are similar to what occurred in 2008 with the Russian incursion into Abkhazia and Ossetia. Little assistance was given to Georgia, a nation that had provided a large portion of their ground forces to support the global war on terror. They believe that even less assistance will be offered to Ukraine, a country which was promised the protection of the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia in a 1992 treaty. That document was designed to remove Soviet-era nuclear weapons from the newly-formed nation in exchange for security guarantees from signature parties.
Diplomacy abroad seems to provide little relief. The United Nations passed a resolution on Ukraine, overwhelmingly rejecting Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula as illegal. The United States and European Union employed an initial round of sanctions and threatened economic and diplomatic pressure against Russia and those suspected of undermining Ukrainian sovereignty. Diplomacy in Colorado appears to have fared no better. A local meeting was held to discuss the issue, and little was resolved. Loud exchanges and a lack of resolution left many even more entrenched in their positions. This led to a large divide in what was once a close community.
It is difficult to determine how the event will unfold abroad. The impact has left the local community fractured. The Easter celebration held this year was attended only by those supporting Russian expansion. Friends are currently being deleted from Facebook, party lists and cultural excursions. Exchanges by email or telephone are now strained or, in some cases, completely avoided. None of the spring and summer Friday night social events are currently scheduled. Friendships that have lasted decades are now on hold as political and military activities in Ukraine continue.
A micro Cold War has begun in Colorado.