By DARREN TOBIA
For Montclair Local

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has won global admiration for his refusal to back down to Vladimir Putin in the Russian invasion of his country. That spirit of defiance was already evident among Ukrainians in the leadup to war, U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who met with Zelenskyy only weeks before the war broke out, said.

“Each and every person I spoke to — and I spoke to dozens of people — was committed to fighting off the Russian aggression and committed to being a democratic nation,” Sherrill, a Montclair resident representing the 11th Congressional District, told Montclair Local. “It really was moving.”

In January, while thousands of Russian troops were amassing at the eastern border of Ukraine, Sherrill took part in a four-day diplomatic visit to Europe, led by Rep. Gregory Meeks (NY-5), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. She approached Meeks about a trip because she wanted to get information on what was happening from the source, she said.

Her role as envoy was to convey a message of unified support among allies and to assess the preparedness of the war-threatened nation, she said.

“Putin’s desire is to have the world carved up into three spheres of influence — the U.S., Russia and China — and to cut out our EU allies,” Sherrill said. “There was a need to assure our EU and NATO allies that we were not going to let that happen.”

The bipartisan delegation — which also included Rep. Tom Malinowski (NJ-7) — traveled first to Brussels, then to the capital city of Ukraine. The group’s meeting with Zelenskyy, followed by a tour through the streets of Kviv, revealed to Sherrill a steeliness among Ukrainians, ready to defend their homeland, she said.

“It’s heartbreaking to see what is happening now in the wake of having just been there — and knowing the places I visited are now rubble,” Sherrill said.

Nearly 4 million Ukrainians have sought refuge abroad, according to the United Nations’ refugee agency’s tracking. The Biden administration said earlier this month it would send more than $1 billion in foreign aid to Ukraine and was committed to 100,000 refugees. 

But Zelenskyy is still pleading for more military aid. While the threat of nuclear warfare continues to unsettle already weary minds, western nations have sought to maintain a balance between supporting Ukraine and engaging Russia in direct military conflict — which earlier this month, President Joe Biden warned would lead to “World War III.”

“We’ve implemented severe sanctions against Russia,” Sherrill said. “And not only have we convinced many of our traditional allies to do that, but even people outside that traditional sphere have supported that.”

Sherrill is a co-sponsor of the Ban Russian Energy Imports Act, which would ban imports of petroleum owned by Russia or a Russian national. Versions were introduced in the House and Senate earlier this month.

But the effects of sanctions still haven’t fully percolated into the Russian economy, Andrey Tomashevskiy, a professor at Rutgers University, said.

U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, fourth from left, meets with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov, eighth from left, and other top Ukrainian officials. (COURTESY OFFICE OF U.S. REP MIKIE SHERRILL)
U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, fourth from left, meets with Ukrainian Minister of Defense Oleksiy Reznikov, eighth from left, and other top Ukrainian officials. (COURTESY OFFICE OF U.S. REP MIKIE SHERRILL)
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“Russia has been over the last 30 years well integrated into the global economy,” said Tomashevskiy, a Ukrainian-born political scientist. “The Russian economy is dependent on receiving parts for maintenance. Very soon they will not be able to do basic maintenance on their airplanes or machinery in factories.”

The effect these sanctions will have — and whether they have the potential to influence regime change — is still a topic of debate. Vladimir Kara-Murza, Russia opposition leader, told CNN earlier this month regime change is not only possible, but the process has been “accelerated” by Putin’s invasion.

“It is very important. This should be one of the highest priorities for the West right now — to provide truth to the Russian people in the Russian language to open the eyes of Russian society,” Kara-Murza said. “Only Russians in Russia can affect political change — and this will happen.”

Tomashevskiy, though, is more skeptical that regime change is possible.

“Sanctions would not necessarily change people’s minds. If anything, it would only confirm the idea that the West is fighting a new Cold War against Russia,” said Tomashevskiy, who argues that sanctions are still enough to “make it more difficult for them to effectively carry out their war effort.”

Tomashevskiy’s family lives in Ukraine’s largest port city, Odessa, near the Moldavian border toward the southwest of Ukraine. When Montclair Local first spoke to him, the bloodshed remained near the Russian border. Since then, however, Russian forces have pushed into the country, attacking targets in Mykolaiv. And for weeks, residents in Odessa have been preparing for the possibility of attacks. 

Nevertheless, Tomashevskiy’s family, which includes an invalid grandfather, is determined to remain at home.

“It seems that they have not been able to get past Ukrainian defenses there, so at the moment, there is little risk of a direct attack on Odessa,” Tomashevskiy said. “It's possible that this may change in the future, but right now I don't think the Russian military has the forces to successfully attack in this direction.”

Local officials have taken their own steps to show solidarity with Ukraine. Montclair Mayor Sean Spiller has notified officials in Cherepovets that he was beginning the process to withdraw from a sister cities relationship with the Russian community (about 300 miles North of Moscow), but so far, the Township Council hasn’t taken any formal action to dissolve or pause that relationship.

Sister Cities International has since issued a statement advising against suspending such relationships, saying doing so harms innocent people who rely on the programs. But the move to suspend or pause that relationship continues to have supporters. Resident Ilmar Vanderer said he’d initially reached out to Councilman Peter Yacobellis, Councilman Bob Russo and Deputy Mayor Bill Hurlock to encourage such a move. 

“I so strongly oppose Putin’s unwarranted and viscous destruction of Ukrainian cities, murder of innocent children and families, and threats to use nuclear weapons, that I now support completely suspending all ties with our Russian sister city immediately,” Russo told Montclair Local.

Montclair has also raised a Ukrainian flag in Montclair Center, at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue, Church Street and South Fullerton Avenue. Clergy, Montclair-area civic leaders and residents gathered Feb. 24 during a vigil for peace in Ukraine. A Facebook fundraiser Yacobellis started has raised more than $25,000 since it began Feb. 26.

Russo also told Montclair Local that township police and fire officials were working with an effort coordinated by Clifton firefighter Oleg Skachko to collect gear and supplies for Ukrainians defending their homeland. That included a donation of old bulletproof vests from Montclair Police, he said. Russo also said he and Spiller had asked the township manager to seek out opportunities to donate other equipment being cycled out of use that would otherwise be auctioned off.