Metro Detroiters 'in shock; everybody's scared' after Russian attack on Ukraine

Southeast Michigan residents with Ukrainian connections still were surprised after Russia expanded a military invasion late Wednesday night into all of Ukraine despite spending weeks steeling themselves for the possibility.

"It’s shocking to see how quickly something like this can happen even when the whole world is against this," said Tania Smyk of Detroit, who is active with the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan. "Emotionally, it's gut-wrenching."

She and other Metro Detroiters were dismayed as their notifications and newsfeeds alerted them to the escalating actions.

Putin announced a military operation that aimed for the "demilitarization and denazification" of Ukraine, launching a wide-ranging attack, and hitting cities and bases with airstrikes or shelling, as civilians piled into trains and cars to flee. Ukraine’s government said Russian tanks and troops rolled across the border in a “full-scale war” that could rewrite the geopolitical order and fallout reverberated around the world.

Vasyl Perets, president of the Michigan branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said it was unthinkable in 2022 for an invasion of this kind to take place.

“If you had a similar situation between the United States and Canada today, would you believe somebody could do this?” he said Thursday.

With his mother and siblings still in Ukraine and the Ukrainian community in Michigan turning to him for reassurance, Perets said he had not slept since the attack began Wednesday night.

“Everyone is in shock,” Perets said. 

Perets said it was time for the United States and other countries “to do something better than sanctions” to deter Russia, going as far as saying American and European troops on the ground in Ukraine may be necessary.

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin of Bloomfield Township said during a Facebook Live event Thursday that he stands in solidarity with Ukrainian residents and asked Michigan residents to be open to accepting Ukrainian refugees who may arrive as a result of the invasion.

Mykola Murskyj, chairman of the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Team of Michigan, said the group only formed three weeks ago but they are working to help.

“This should be terrifying to all Americans," Murskyj said. "This should make all of us nervous that the largest nuclear power is held by somebody who is not good at strategy, tactics, cost-benefit analysis or deciding the risk to his own people. He is not going to be remembered as Vladimir the Great."

Murskyj said the war in Ukraine means it will be harder to export oil, wheat and graphite — a key component of lithium-ion batteries. Ukraine exports the second-most graphite of any country, trailing only China.

“If you don’t think that your phone or car batteries are expensive enough ..., we are going to see rising commodity prices in the United States, from a global standpoint,” he said. 

MoreUkraine's Zelensky to Russians: 'What are you fighting for and with whom?'

Flags made in support of Ukraine by the students of Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Schools sit on display in the school’s lobby, in Warren, February 24, 2022.  Half of the school’s students were born in Ukraine and over two-thirds have Ukrainian parents.

Some in Metro Detroit urged a show of force from the international community.

"We are now finding ourselves in a situation akin to 1939 with the invasion of Poland," said Eugene Bondarenko, who teaches Russian and Ukrainian language and culture at the University of Michigan. "As uncomfortable as it is to say, I do think that we are at a moment where we must consider military force against Russia to protect Ukraine. I think Putin has made abundantly clear that no amount of sanctions, or threats of making him a pariah, will change the situation."

Since the invasion "is a challenge to the world’s security" and economic fallout could result, Bondarenko said, "you will see calls from the Ukrainian community to do more."

More:Michigan lawmakers condemn Russian invasion of Ukraine, want 'crippling' sanctions

An emergency rally was held Thursday at St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Warren to respond to the aggression. Another gathering is planned Sunday at Hart Plaza in Detroit, Smyk said, with many expected to dress in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag.

Speaking out is crucial, Smyk said. "That’s what’s going to get the attention of other people and officials who make things happen."

Borys Potapenko, with the Detroit chapter of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, said he fears for his family and other Ukrainian residents..

“Ukraine for 30 years has been a democratic country … Russia has been doing everything in its power to prevent those democratic institutions from taking root, but they have,” he said. “Ukrainians embrace democracy and their freedoms that exist today. They are not exhausted from an eight-year war. They are out mobilizing to stop this invasion.”

Eleven-year-old Liliana Lutski and the rest of her fifth grade class participate in a daily prayer at the end of the school day at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Schools, in Warren, February 24, 2022. Half of the school’s students were born in Ukraine and over two-thirds have Ukrainian parents.

Olena Danylyuk, who works at Wayne State University, said she’s hearing from people who described escaping from Mariupol in southeastern Ukraine and hiding in shelters and caves.

“I received a call from a mother who is a scholar at Wayne State that left two weeks ago to Ukraine and has taken shelter at a hospital, where her son is suffering from COVID complications," Danylyuk said. "She can’t leave him and told me to pray for her. It’s very hard to organize transportation. Many need donations and treatment kits sent to Poland." 

Oleh Karanec was cautious about calls for the United States and allies to send in troops.

Karanec  a member of the Ukrainian American Center Foundation, which provides scholarships to college students, and a Ukrainian American veteran, said he was “horrified and very upset” but not surprised by the attack Wednesday.

Members and supporters of the Ukrainian-American community gather for an emergency rally, a day after a Russian invasion of Ukraine, at St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Warren, Michigan on February 24, 2022.

“Certainly, Ukraine could use military aid, but at the same time, the United States has particular obligations … to nations belonging to NATO and the European Union, so I don’t think we are in a position to send troops to Ukraine,” said Karanec, 75, of Macomb Township.

Karanec said he would like to see the United States send weapons and reinforce the Ukrainian army, along with sanctions.

Civilian casualties were expected with Russian tactics likely to change day-to-day, Karanec said, and the response of the United States and its allies needed to adapt to the situation on the ground.

Mary Anne Gruda, principal of the Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Schools in Warren, said the school Thursday morning was a “very somber environment,” with many staff and students worried about their loved ones back home. Around half of the school’s students were born and raised in Ukraine, Gruda said.

Principal Mary Ann Gruda stands in the front lobby of Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Schools, in Warren, February 24, 2022.  (David Guralnick / The Detroit News)

“I think it’s very nerve-racking,” said Gruda. “What is happening is very worrisome because you don’t know what the outcome of this is going to be.”

The school has set aside time for prayers and brought in a therapist to give students a chance to tdiscuss their feelings. 

The community, including the children, are aware of what has happened in Ukraine because of the close ties many have to the country, Gruda said.

The school has about 160 students in grades preK-8. About 70% have parents who are Ukraine nationals. In a 14-student class of fifth-grade students, more than half raised their hands, including Max Olinyk, on Thursday when asked if they knew someone living in Ukraine.

The 11-year-old said he watches the news and see images of the invasion.

“There is war, the airport is closing, and my brother cannot come back,” Max said. “I talked to him. He will never XX back until when the war is over. I miss. I feel sad for him.”

Members and supporters of the Ukrainian-American community gather for an emergency rally, a day after a Russian invasion of Ukraine, at St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church in Warren, Michigan on February 24, 2022.

Max said his brother is 26 or 27 and he spoke to him by phone on Wednesday.

“He said he will be all right,” Max said.

Students in school uniforms decorated small flags of blue, yellow and white. Some wrote “Ukraine Strong” while others drew a map of the country. Other messages said “pray for Ukraine” and “God Bless Ukraine.”

Some students said a parent had been in Ukraine last week but safely returned before the invasion. Melanie  Kuhnhenn, a second grader, said she has grandparents in Ukraine.

Max Olinyk talks about his feelings about the invasion of Ukraine while in his fifth-grade class at Immaculate Conception Ukrainian Catholic Schools, in Warren, February 24, 2022. Half of the schoolÕs students were born in Ukraine and over two-thirds have Ukrainian parents.

“I don’t want Russia to kill more people,” the 8-year-old said. “They are old and they love Ukraine a lot,” she said of her grandparents. “But they don’t want this to happen.”

Students are afraid their families could get hurt and Russian soldiers could be "coming in their home," Gruda said.

“They came in upset this morning, I think they caught the news, some of them caught it last night and some of them caught it this morning,” said fifth-grade teacher Dianne Karpinsky.

“They are also upset at the countries not helping and at the countries that are helping the other side. They are very surprised at it. They have a high sense of fairness and they realize this is not fair.”

Romana Tobianski, the school’s former principal, said children in the community appeared to be aware of what was happening in their homeland even as far back as 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea.

“They could have a pretty good conversation with you,” said Tobianski, 65, of Lexington. “They know what's happening. They need to express themselves, so it is important to listen to what they have to say and answer some questions.”

People take part in "Stand with Ukraine" public demonstration outside the Russian Consulate General, following the Russian attack of Ukraine, in Edinburgh, Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

First aid kits, donations and Christmas cards with Christmas trees drawn next to army tanks were among the items students sent to Ukraine in 2014 in support of the country’s resistance to Russian attacks, Tobianski said.

“It was a time when the world was paying a little less attention,” she said.

Tobianski said she spoke with her cousin, who lives near Lviv in western Ukraine at about 2 a.m. Detroit time. He said then that he was fine when it seemed the attacks were limited.

When Tobianski woke up and watched the news Thursday morning, she said she saw that western territories had been bombed as well and it looked like a “full-fledged attack.” She said she had not been able to check back in with him since then, but that he had sent her a link to a now-inactive livestream of the attack.

In the early morning call, Tobianski asked her cousin if they needed anything, though she thought it would be impossible to send anything in the mail now, and he said they just needed peace.

“If you could pack it up in a little box, we’d be so grateful,” he told her.

The Associated Press contributed.