GREEN BAY, Wis. — Alona Vakal knows that a more forceful military response by the U.S. government against Russia — whose president, Vladimir Putin, has bloodily invaded Ukraine — risks causing an all-out world war.
But her concern isn’t what will happen if Washington intervenes more aggressively. Her concern is what may happen if it doesn’t.
“Putin is not going to stop,” said Vakal, who came to Green Bay in 2008 from Berdyansk, a port city in southeastern Ukraine. “If America doesn’t do more to stop him, he won’t stop. The longer we wait, the worse it will be.”
Vakal, whose mother and sister still live in Berdyansk, which is currently occupied by Russian forces, stopped short of saying she’d want the United States or NATO to put troops on the ground in Ukraine. But she implored Washington and Europe to set up a no-fly zone, even if it risks drawing them into open war.
“People worry about World War III. World War III is right now already, it’s here already. What more do you need to see?” she said. “Ukraine is just the first step for Putin.”
Vakal spoke to NBC News at a small church in Green Bay — home to a tightknit portion of Wisconsin’s 10,000 Ukrainian Americans — where dozens of members of a group called Wisconsin Ukrainians gathered Thursday night to help sort and box thousands of pounds of medical equipment, boots, clothing and food to be sent to soldiers and residents in Ukraine.
They expressed heartbreak, anguish, anger and devastation at the suffering Russia was inflicting on their homeland.
And while many demanded the West more aggressively help Ukraine, the extent to which the U.S. should intervene was a subject of debate. Some echoed Vakal’s feeling that intervention now is necessary to prevent Putin from provoking a bigger and far more dangerous war, while others said they were conscious of the risks that escalatory steps, like a NATO-enforced no-fly zone over the county, could bring.
“Sooner or later, someone will have to step in,” said Valentyn Tereshchenko, who came to Green Bay in 2001 from Sumy, a city in northeastern Ukraine that has come under intense attack by Russian forces. “And yes, I would like to see U.S. be more aggressive. The people in Ukraine need more guns, more planes, more tanks, more missiles, more weapons, to help close the skies.”
Jonathan Pylypiv, who came to the U.S. as an orphan in 1992 from Ternopil, in western Ukraine, said that when a humanitarian crisis like the one in Ukraine is broadcast on television and social media for the world to see, the U.S. and Europe should not be solely concerned with whether Ukraine is a member of NATO or the European Union as a factor in whether to intervene.
“If we were watching World War II live-streamed the way we are watching the invasion of Ukraine right now, would people really say, ‘Oh, those poor people being killed by the Nazis are suffering, but we shouldn’t help them because they don’t live in a NATO nation,’” he said.
Pylypiv organized the Wisconsin Ukrainians group on Facebook in 2014 to cultivate a sense of community. But in recent months, he has used it to help organize vigils, rallies and coordinate with groups across the state to collect goods to ship to Ukraine. He is in the process of converting the group into nonprofit status.
At the center of these pleas is the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, a political pact under which Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons, Russia agreed to not use military force against Ukraine, and the U.S. provided security assurances to Ukraine if its territory was ever threatened.
“The U.S. has a moral duty to do everything possible to honor that,” Pylypiv said. “Words aren’t strong enough to describe the feeling of abandonment and disappointment.”
While he and others said the severe sanctions levied on Putin and other Russian oligarchs by President Joe Biden — as well as the White House’s ban on Russian oil imports — were crucial moves that will inflict real pain on the Russian government and economy, many said they wouldn’t stop Putin or his war.
“They’re not going to stop the war,” said Tereshchenko, whose parents and sister still live in Sumy. “I believe that Putin does not actually care about his own people. Whether 10,000 soldiers of his die, or 100,000, or whether 100,000 of his people starve, he is going to do what he wants to do,” he said.
Added Vakal, “It’s not enough, I’m sorry to say. They will not stop him. He has his plan.”
But others acknowledged that the sanctions were, essentially, all the U.S. could do for now without starting a wider conflict — and expressed fear for the wider ramifications that increased U.S. intervention would likely bring.
“I think those of us who were born and raised here, we might understand better the higher risk of another world war and the nuclear component that could occur if we put boots on the ground, or even if we tried to implement a no-fly zone,” said Olga Liskiwskyi, the executive director of the Ukrainian American Archives and Museum in Detroit, where more than 26,000 Ukrainian Americans live.
She added: “I think newer immigrants, who have a more direct connection to the country, are anxious and might not understand why the U.S. isn’t doing more militarily.”
Liskiwskyi, a member of the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan, was born in the U.S. to parents who fled Ukraine during World War II. She has family in Kyiv.
Svitlana and Mykhaylo Mykhaylyuk, of Green Bay, maintain that direct connection to Ukraine.
Svitlana, an accounting assistant, came to Green Bay from Vinnytsia, in central Ukraine, as an exchange student in 2006. She soon met Mykhaylo, who had arrived in Green Bay in 2002 from Ternopil as a student and now works at a cheese factory here. They have two children, and together, they helped start the Ukrainian Cultural School of Green Bay. Both have close family in Ukraine.
They pointed out that Ukraine is doing everything it can to fight Russia, and that additional help from the U.S. would be fully utilized.
“My mother can hear rockets every day,” Svitlana said. “I am so proud of my country. From 7 years old to 90 years old, they are protecting their country. How could it be that NATO is afraid to protect us, that the U.S. is afraid to close the sky, when there are children and old people in Ukraine rising up to protect their family and friends?”
Her husband added, “Give us the planes and the anti-aircraft weapons. We’ll do it ourselves.”