Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


‘There’s just no other option’: Madison Ukrainians lead support as third year of war encroaches

Grassroots organization endures amidst national political infighting
Soren Goldsmith

Shortly after Russia’s February 2022 invasion of Ukraine, owner of Door County Candle Co. Christiana Trapani was on the phone with her aunt, who lives in Ukraine.

“She was crying and scared and it was … it was a very heavy and difficult call to have,” Trapani said. “I knew I wanted to do something to help to raise awareness and to raise money.”

As a second-generation, 100% Ukrainian, Trapani is deeply connected to Ukraine’s population and culture. 


So when the war broke out, she decided to turn her emotion into action. 

Trapani quickly organized a fundraiser for Ukraine through her candle company. With about seven blue and yellow candles left over from a previous Ukrainian school fundraiser, Trapani began selling the candles and donating 100% of the profits to Razom for Ukraine, a 501(c)(3) fundraiser. 

Before she knew it, the fundraiser had raised $1,000,000.

“That was something beyond my wildest expectations,” Trapani said.

Trapani said sales of the Ukraine candle have definitely decreased since 2022, but it fluctuates with the news cycle. When people are talking about Ukraine, fundraising accelerates.

Almost two years later, the war drags on. But right here in Wisconsin, a growing and increasingly active Ukrainian community hasn’t stopped fighting.

Natalka Akulenko, who is from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv but has been in Madison since before 2022, works for the City of Madison and is a moderator of the Friends of Ukraine, Madison WI Facebook group. Even now, as the war in Ukraine is about to enter its third year, Akulenko and others faithfully share updates on the state of war almost every day. Posts range from fundraising opportunities and event postings, to welcoming new group members and videos demonstrating the human impact of the war.

“I would love for [people] to not assume that everything’s done just because it’s not on the news,” Akulenko said.

In maintaining such a steady outpouring of content, Akulenko knows the challenging reality of sustaining support for Ukraine as media and political landscapes are changing. The upcoming presidential election in the United States coupled with global events such as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza shorten the lifespan of news, Akulenko said.

Fearing for the humanitarian impacts of Ukraine’s defeat, and the possibility of spreading warfare, Akulenko said awareness of the ongoing issues makes a huge difference.

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Political context

Professor of political science Yoshiko Herrera teaches a new course at the University of Wisconsin titled “The Russian War on Ukraine: Causes and Consequences.” Herrera describes it as a comparative politics and international relations class that relates topics like nationalism, democracy and civil society to the war in Ukraine.

“It’s an interesting pedagogical approach to take a current events issue and then look at topics and theoretical topics in comparative politics and international relations using something of current interest to students,” Herrera said.

Much of Russia’s most recent invasion can be attributed to a “tangled history” between Russia and Ukraine after the fall of the Soviet Union, Herrera said.

Though Russia lost its ability to control the former Soviet states that joined the European Union and NATO, Herrera said, Ukraine fluctuated between pro-Russian and pro-European leadership for a long time.

When Ukraine started adopting more solidly pro-Western politics, Russia was motivated to regain control, Herrera said.

“Looking back at it, it looks like Russia has — it’s not that they’ve been preparing for war all this time — it’s that Ukraine actually rejected Russia and had chosen a more European path,” Herrera said. “That’s why Russia felt they had to act militarily.”

With Putin demonstrating a willingness to use military force to maintain control over Ukraine, Herrera said it’s important for people in Madison, and across Wisconsin, to care about what’s going on and to understand what the implications of the war might mean.

Though Americans aren’t on the geographical frontlines of the war, Herrera said Russia’s campaign against the Western world presents a security threat to the United States.

“We are facing very serious threats to our security that aren’t vague like, ‘maybe something might happen someday,’” Herrera said. “You have a very aggressive country that is determined to wage a military battle against Ukraine and against the West.”

At the same time grassroots movements to support Ukraine are pressing forward, the broader circumstances of the war are changing. In the U.S. — Ukraine’s largest benefactor — domestic politics have divided support for Ukraine along party lines, according to the Pew Research Center.

Republicans in Congress have started using aid for Ukraine as a bargaining chip in discussions over border policies, placing Ukrainians at the crux of a heated national debate, according to the New York Times.

This American infighting, coupled with Ukraine’s inability to break through Russia’s defenses have placed Ukraine in a challenging position, according to professor of practice in Russian studies at UW Mikhail Troitskiy.

Troitskiy said the current situation may look disappointing for Ukraine. Though Ukraine has held its own so far, its ability to push back against Russian forces is now stalling after an anticlimactic counteroffensive over the summer.

The current starting points for potential negotiation are too wide to make progress, but a future ceasefire agreement is not impossible if all sides are ready to compromise. While dependent on Ukraine’s state of exhaustion, Ukraine is currently unlikely to recognize its territorial concessions to Russia, Troitskiy said.

There is also a possibility that surrounding states are drawn into the war. Baltic states bordering Russia are feeling particularly vulnerable as international support wanes, Troitskiy said. And if a NATO state such as Finland or Estonia is invaded, the U.S. will be drawn into the conflict, per Article 5 of the NATO Alliance. 

The Pentagon has run out of money to send aid to Ukraine since additional funding is tied up in Congress over stalling border negotiations, according to The Associated Press. Without this funding, Ukraine does not have the resources nor the territorial standing to negotiate for peace.

“Public support of the U.S. aid for Ukraine has been diluted because of the impression that there is no end in sight to the war,” Troitskiy said in an email statement to The Badger Herald.

Since the start of the war, a greater share of Americans have described the amount of aid to Ukraine as “too much” — increasing from 24% in August 2022 to 41% in October 2023, according to Gallup. Republicans in particular contribute to this trend, with 48% surveyed between November and December 2023 saying the U.S. is providing “too much” aid to Ukraine, according to Pew Research Center.

The American public does not want to fund a war indefinitely, but without additional support, the war will continue to drag — or escalate.

In American communities, including in Wisconsin, some have realized funding delays means support for Ukraine has to come from somewhere else.

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Localized support

Karina Tweedell is a board member of Wisconsin Ukrainians, a nonprofit organization created in April 2022 to offer fundraising and advocacy support to Ukraine. Wisconsin Ukrainians — which Tweedell said has united an existing community in the area — is made up of mostly first- and second-generation Ukrainian immigrants.

“We all have a lot of ties with the people in Ukraine … our families, our loved ones, friends, classmates,” Tweedell said. “Just seeing how the war started — at least the full-scale invasion — we all felt like it would be good for us to come together and do something to support.”

Before receiving its nonprofit status, Wisconsin Ukrainians relied on a church in Milwaukee to collect donations. The organization has since become independent and accepts support from anyone willing to offer it, Tweedell said.

But fundraising has stalled. In 2022, Wisconsin Ukrainians raised $540,000 in aid. In 2023, the number totals at around ten times less — despite continued efforts on the part of fundraisers and advocates. The difference can be attributed to less media attention and social awareness that the war is still happening, Tweedell said.

In addition to changing media landscapes impacting fundraising efforts, another shift since 2022 has been greater support for Ukrainians living in the U.S.

Immediately after Russia’s invasion, there was no simple, effective legal pathway for Ukrainians to enter the U.S. as refugees. But on April 21, 2022, the Biden administration announced the Uniting for Ukraine program, which streamlined the process for Ukrainian citizens to relocate to the U.S. for two years with an American citizen sponsor.

The more than 170,000 Ukrainians granted humanitarian parole through Uniting for Ukraine have special status that differs slightly from typical refugees. Under U.S. law, people may be granted humanitarian parole for “urgent humanitarian” or “significant public benefit” needs.

The situation is always changing as Republicans in Congress vie for stricter immigration policies. But the latest version of a border deal would prevent restrictions from being applied to Ukrainians’ ability to stay in the U.S. on the basis of group-based humanitarian parole, according to the New York Times.

Since Ukrainians started receiving humanitarian parole status to stay in the U.S., Wisconsin Ukrainians has taken up the responsibility of helping Ukrainians resettle in Wisconsin, Tweedell said.

“Sometimes we would help finding furniture, or sometimes it’s giving a ride … it’s individual-based,” Tweedell said. “But we’re also holding workshops. Just recently we did a workshop that informed more recent refugees about different shopping and nutritional options here.”

Katya Temchenko is one of more than 125,000 Ukrainian beneficiaries of the Uniting for Ukraine program. She is also a manager and founding member of Touch of Ukraine, a restaurant located on Madison’s Winnebago Street since July 2023.

Founder of Oregon, Wisconsin-based developer Gorman & Co. Gary Gorman sponsored Temchenko and 11 other Ukrainian refugees under the Uniting for Ukraine program, and later offered to lease the commercial space to open Touch of Ukraine, according to The Cap Times.

“Everything is housemade, everything has a sense of home,” Temchenko said of the restaurant’s menu. “Of course, it’s mainly our traditional Ukrainian foods — dumplings, chicken Kyiv, stuff like that. It tastes like home.”

At the beginning, Temchenko said there was a bit of learning curve — none of the founders were in the restaurant business before coming to Madison. But she said support from the community over the past five months has been “tremendous.”

And if the growth of the Friends of Ukraine Facebook group is any indication, this “tremendous” community extends into Madison more broadly.

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Community building

Akulenko, the Friends of Ukraine moderator, said when the group was first created in 2019, there were probably about 10 members. Today, the group is more than 820 strong. While Friends of Ukraine was initially created to share culture and language, Russia’s invasion changed the dynamic, Atulenko said.

“The focus shifted away from language to keeping people up to date … [with] the human side of the war,” Akulenko said. “Showing the Ukrainian spirits, and in this tragic time, the unbreakable Ukranians who find humor and lightness, even under the most dire circumstances.”

Atulenko said that while the topic of aid Ukraine has become something of a “bargaining chip” on Capitol Hill, support for Ukraine in local communities remains high.

In Madison, there are many more cultural and fundraising events than there ever were before 2022 — even as the war is about to enter its third year. Friends of Ukraine and a few other groups in the Dane County area hosted more than five events of varying size in 2023, including the annual Ukrainian Independence Day picnic at Garner Park in August, Atulenko said.

Just outside of Madison, the nonprofit Stoughton Resettlement has offered support for 50 Ukrainian refugees. Countless events in the Madison community have fundraised for Ukraine and celebrated its diversity of people and cultures.

Trapani said the Wisconsin community that formed around supporting Ukraine was imperative to fundraising efforts. Not only have people rallied to purchase candles — which have become a permanent addition to Door County Candle Co.’s collection — but Trapani said volunteers helped clean and prepare jars, then pack candles to ship.

“The community would not let us fail — that’s what I always say,” Trapani said. “They’ve been absolutely integral in this fundraising, and without them, we 100% would not be at a million dollar donation without the community.”

More broadly, Trapani said she’s noticed a growing network made up of Ukrainians and Wisconsinite supporters.

Since the invasion, Trapani has connected with many Ukrainians living in Wisconsin who share similar experiences. And largely, they have been met with a community of Wisconsinites who are stepping up to show their support.

“I’ve seen so many Ukrainian flags, and people … who are Ukrainian will say that they never remembered seeing so many Ukrainian flags out,” Trapani said. “And it’s just very, very special to see that.”

This kind of advocacy certainly creates a welcoming culture here in Madison. But given Congress’ recent lack of “urgency” to aid Ukraine financially, concerns are rising about how long moral support can sustain the war over Ukraine’s sovereignty.

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An ongoing undertaking

Despite some of the bleak circumstances, Troitskiy said ongoing moral support convinces politicians to allocate funds to the cause.

“Government decisions in the West to provide financial support to Ukraine were to a significant extent driven by the strong moral support for Ukraine in Western societies,” Troitskiy said in an email statement to The Badger Herald.

Politicians can’t ignore constituents who are persistently voicing their support for Ukraine. Though global issue, such as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, have stretched the media landscape thin, the situation could change, Troitskiy said.

Herrera has an “optimistic” view that the U.S. will resolve its budgeting problem in Congress in order to move forward with an aid package that continues support for Ukraine. Though Republicans in Congress are resisting sending aid to Ukraine in hopes of negotiating stricter immigration policies, Herrera said American politicians are not actually morally opposed to Ukraine’s cause.

“Ukrainians are the ones taking the casualties and they’re just desperately in need of support,” Herrera said. “My hopeful scenario is that the West and the U.S. get together and continue to support Ukraine and Ukraine continues to make progress. But it is — I have to admit — it’s really challenging because of the severe threat posed by Russia.”

While a negotiated settlement would be ideal, Herrera said Russia is “absolutely uninterested in peace.” The way to resolve the war while maintaining Ukraine’s sovereignty, Herrera said, is for the U.S. to invest its support abroad.

In other words, a morally invested public will inspire a financially invested government. While challenges remain in maintaining support at all levels, Ukrainians in Wisconsin are leading the way.

“The main thing right now, at this moment, is to show your local government, your state government, that you keep supporting Ukraine … so the government of the U.S. [won’t] stop its help to Ukraine,” Temchenko said.

Trapani said it’s crucial to maintain support in the U.S., even when news fatigue hearing about the situation becomes challenging.

“We don’t want history to repeat itself,” Trapani said. “We have to start now by making sure it doesn’t … We just have to continue standing with Ukraine and not forgetting about them because they can’t take a day off of war. They don’t have that choice.”

Tweedell agreed that mobilization in the U.S. is critical for sustaining the war, given Ukraine’s early disadvantages. She also argued the U.S. should be eager to avoid a larger military conflict if the war continues to progress.

“What’s really frightening about it is not only the impact on Ukraine itself, but the outcome of this war sets the precedent for the way other countries are behaving and the world order overall,” Tweedell said.

Ukrainians know the stakes are high. And when the sovereignty of Ukraine is on the line, Akulenko maintains hope by keeping up the fight in any way she can.

“For Ukraine — as a culture, as a very large group of people, as a country — this is truly a life and death issue,” Akulenko said. “There’s just no other option but to keep fighting.”

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