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Political divide over Ukraine manifests in Pennsylvania, crucial US swing state

by Owen Racer June 26, 2024 3:58 PM 8 min read
Attendees listen as former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a campaign event at the Liacouras Center at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on June 22, 2024. (Hannah Beier/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
by Owen Racer June 26, 2024 3:58 PM 8 min read
This audio is created with AI assistance

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PHILADELPHIA, PENNSYLVANIA – Once a month in the basement of a minimally marked neighborhood building, an age-spanning group of Ukrainian Americans gather to discuss the typical meeting minutes of most nonprofits: dues, membership, and events.

With nearly 800 current members – all of whom must be of Ukrainian descent – the Ukrainian American Citizens Association (UACA), or the Ukie Club, has been a hangout in Philadelphia’s Northern Liberties neighborhood for 115 years. Generations of Ukrainian Americans have grown up in the club's friendly-priced bar and adjacent soccer field.

The club – and other Ukrainian organizations like culture centers and churches with roots in Philadelphia – hopes to welcome some of the city’s influx of new Ukrainians who have been arriving since the full-scale invasion began in February 2022.

Time spent in the Philadelphia region's Ukrainian community of over 60,000 — especially less than five months away from a presidential election in which the swing state of Pennsylvania is critical campaign grounds – exposes a divide of political will to support the embattled country.

The nearly 13 million people of Pennsylvania, America’s second-largest Ukrainian community, went for former President Donald Trump in the 2016 election and President Joe Biden in the 2020 election by just 80,555 votes (1.2%).

This political divide rendered itself on the weekend of June 22-23 when Trump held a rally in Philadelphia, not far from where the Ukrainian community flourished in its now routine fashion in support of their home country. Meanwhile, the Republican frontrunner’s supporters were far more worried about “America-first” issues than supporting Ukraine.

The U.S. remains Ukraine’s biggest supporter, having provided more than $50 billion in military aid and over $23 billion in financial and humanitarian assistance since 2022, according to the Kiel Institute. In the six months that a U.S. aid package bill was stuck in Congress due to political infighting, Ukraine’s capabilities to defend front-line positions, as well as cities further away from the battlefield, have deteriorated significantly, underscoring the vital importance of U.S. support.

Although Trump has been vague in his plans for Ukraine if he returns to office, foreign policy experts say “it’s not a pretty picture,” as he’s repeatedly criticized aid to Ukraine and expressed fondness for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Chatter inside the Ukie Club was focused on Ukraine’s recent 2-1 victory over Slovakia in the 2024 UEFA European Football Championship rather than the political spectacle set to commence mere miles away the next evening.

Plenty of yellow and blue is strewn about inside the club in addition to red, white, and blue, but no Trump memorabilia. Conversations with their elder members quickly remind guests that the local Ukrainian communities' support of Ukraine – although robust of late – isn’t new, they’ve been supporting a free homeland for decades.  

The host of Philadelphia’s Ukrainian Hour radio program on WWDB-AM, Leo Iwaskiw, said that while aid flowing from Philadelphia to Ukraine isn’t new, the amount since the full-scale invasion has been hectic. With a laugh, he added it’s because so many locals have wanted to contribute, either welcoming new arrivals or donating humanitarian support.

Across the street from the Ukie Club, stretching high into the sky with a gold-fused Venetian glass central dome depicting the coat of arms of different regions of Ukraine is one of the Ukrainian Catholic Archeparchy of Philadelphia’s parishes. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Cathedral is where Pope John Paul II spoke on Oct. 4, 1929, briefly addressing the crowd in Ukrainian. The Philadelphia Archeparchy distributed $7.2 million in humanitarian aid to Ukraine in 2023.

Worshippers attend a prayer service for Ukraine at the Ukrainian Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S., on Feb. 26, 2023. (Rachel Wisniewski/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Although absent any visible political messaging, conversations at the Ukie Club weren’t free of the nearing election. Some members repeated facts that Russia’s current full-scale invasion of Ukraine began while Biden was in the White House. When asked, others say they believe Trump when he says he would end the war on day one of his second administration and that the invasion wouldn’t have happened if he had been commander in chief.

Between the Ukie Club’s bar – with Ukrainian-made Obolon beers and American flags atop it – and the entrance next to the “no cleats in the clubhouse” sign hangs a bulletin board. The collection of postings on it includes one for Revived Soldiers Ukraine (RSU), a nonprofit that provides medical and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

Supporting soldiers

The Orlando-based organization, RSU, hosted its first run to raise money for soldiers' medical procedures in Bucks County, Pennsylvania at Tyler State Park outside Philadelphia in late June. Nearly twenty Ukrainian soldiers have come through Philadelphia to receive orthopedic surgeries from Penn Medicine, arm prosthetics from Innovations Prosthetics Center, and optical care from Wills Eye Hospital.

Mykola Melnyk, a 39-year-old officer in Ukraine’s Armed Forces who served as a company commander of the 47th Mechanized Brigade during the counteroffensive in southern Ukraine, was one of the soldiers attending the benefit. On day one of the long-planned counteroffensive, the former lawyer stepped on a mine, losing a leg and part of his other foot.

Mykola Melnyk, who was awarded the Order of Bohdan Khemelnytsk after surviving his injuries as a company commander of Ukraine’s 47th Mechanized Brigade, speaks with the Kyiv independent in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. on June 22, 2024. (Linda Johnson/the Kyiv Independent)
Ukrainian soldiers who are in Philadelphia receiving treatment partook in the first charity run hosted by Revived Soldiers Ukraine in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, U.S. on June 22, 2024. (Owen Racer/the Kyiv Independent)

In addition to medical consultations at Penn Medicine in Philadelphia to determine the fate of his left foot, Melnyk has been in Washington D.C. working on a report with a military expert who works with the Pentagon. The report, which he couldn’t disclose the details of for safety precautions, is about the effectiveness of U.S. weapons in Ukraine.

“I have to convince our Western partners, while I may not have the influence of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, I still strive to make people understand some basic truths,” Melnyk said. “Without U.S. support, it will be quite difficult, if not impossible, for Ukraine to survive through 2025.”

For members of this Ukrainian American community to reach the benefit for wounded soldiers, many had to drive on Interstate 95, which was lined with billboards displaying the city’s evening guest. Once off I-95, the neighborhoods preceding Tyler State Park displayed yard signs for Trump’s re-election and the occasional Ukrainian flag.

Swing state

Philadelphia locals across the city took to social media before Trump’s rally showing the mix of counter-messaging along the city’s roads. Trump’s arrival to the Philadelphia area – where Biden has visited five times this year – wasn’t met with surprise or without pushback, as Pennsylvania is one of few states that could determine the election results.

Trump’s rally, which lasted around an hour, did not mention Ukraine and continuously returned to immigration and the U.S. southern border. This policy priority, frequently called “America First” was reflected by Trump supporters outside the rally who spoke with the Kyiv Independent.

Pennsylvania’s Democrat Senator, John Fetterman, has been a consistent voice for passing U.S. aid for Ukraine through Congress.

“If you can’t support Ukraine right now, that’s un-American and you’re not standing up for democracy,” Sen. Fetterman said in his statement after meeting with Zelensky in September.

However, he too has become more vocally known for his adamant focus on Israeli hostages following the escalation with the Palestinian militant group, Hamas, in October, an element of foreign policy with variations of bipartisan support.

“[Ukraine’s] gotten enough money under the Biden Administration,” said one Trump supporter, Veronica, from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, who refused to provide her last name. “I stand with Ukraine, my heart goes out to them, but our nation is under attack, we have millions of illegals in our nation and that’s what we need to worry about.” The U.S. had 10.5 million unauthorized immigrants in 2021 according to a 2023 report from the Pew Research Center.

Former U.S. President and presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Philadelphia on June 22, 2024. (Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images)
Trump supporters shout at Biden supporters during a Philadelphia Democrats 'Rally Against Trump!' demonstration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, US, on Saturday, June 22, 2024. Biden and Trump are scheduled to face off on June 27 in their first televised debate of the 2024 cycle. (Matthew Hatcher/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Trump’s scarce mentions of foreign affairs came not through policy proposals but through mentions of Russia’s vast oil supply and attacking the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021 under the Biden Administration.

Other rhetoric familiar amongst Trump’s base resonated with his supporters at the Philadelphia rally.

“I feel as though if Trump was in office [Russia’s invasion of Ukraine] wouldn’t have happened,” said another Pennsylvania Trump supporter who runs a general contracting business and who refused to provide his name. “He’s really good with foreign relations, I believe that if you’re going to be a leader in a harsh world, you’re going to have to be a little bit harsh.”

Inside the rally, one attendee – branding no Trump gear – gripped a small Ukrainian flag for the former president’s entire speech. However, the hint of blue and yellow in a sea of red failed to ever wave in the air, remaining subdued for the evening.

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