The threat of a Russian invasion of Ukraine does not only concern Ukraine.
Stopping by the Reading Public Library on Monday afternoon as part of a city sights tour, U.S. Representative Chrissy Houlahan took time to discuss a trip she and 10 other House members did in the Eastern European nation last week.
The bipartisan diplomatic visit came amid rising tensions in the region, with Russia massing hundreds of thousands of troops on the Ukrainian border and fears of an imminent invasion rising.
US officials have warned an attack on Ukraine could come at any moment and called on Russia to back down. Moscow officials, however, denied any plan of attack.
Houlahan, a member of the parliament’s foreign affairs and armed services committees, said the threat to Ukraine’s sovereignty was an immediate concern. She and other US officials fear for the Ukrainian people and worry about the fate of the country’s democracy.
But the threat does not stop there. The situation in Ukraine, she said, threatens democracy worldwide.
“We as Americans should be concerned about the situation,” the Chester County Democrat said. “It’s very easy to focus on yourself when things are difficult here for so many people. But it’s also important to be aware of what’s happening an ocean beyond.
She said Ukraine is the “tip of the spear” when it comes to the struggle between democratic ideals and authoritarian regimes.
“Ukraine is a young and vibrant democracy,” she said. “He’s threatened by Russia with 130,000 troops stationed all around them trying to violate the sovereignty of their borders and trying to tell them what alliances they can join.”
Houlahan warned that if democracy falls in Ukraine, there are fears it could fall in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. And these three countries are members of the NATO alliance, which means that the United States has an obligation to help defend them.
“We need to have a unified response,” she said, noting that economic sanctions, humanitarian aid, military support and stationing US troops somewhere in the region are all possibilities that need to be considered.
Houlahan said his motivation for making the trip was to try to find out what the rest of the world — including Ukrainians — thinks about how the United States and its allies can respond to this threat.
Now that Houlahan is back, she hopes she can explain to people in her community, state and nation why they should care about Ukraine.
“What we do here matters there and what they do there matters here,” she said. “All of these events are interconnected.”
A personal connection
Ukraine’s sovereignty is also important to Houlahan on a personal level.
She believes her father, Andrew Jampoler, was born there. Because he was born into a Jewish family in the midst of the Holocaust in 1942, she said a birth certificate showing he was born in Poland may not have been accurate. She thinks he was actually born in a town that is now part of Ukraine.
Houlahan said an authoritarian German regime invading the country during World War II bore a chilling resemblance to the possible invasion by another authoritarian regime all those decades later.
She said the current situation with Ukraine also had an uncanny familiarity with past conflicts with the then Soviet Union.
Long before coming to Congress, Houlahan served as an Air Force project engineer, specializing in ballistic missile defense at the end of the Cold War. She said the vernacular of her time in service was replete with the buzzwords of that time: sphere of influence, intercontinental ballistic missiles and mutual assured destruction.
“It was the language of my generation,” she says.
But she said her trips last week to Ukraine highlighted one thing: This generation may need to dust off that Cold War-era language in the face of Russian aggression and destabilization.
Houlahan’s trip had two parts. Before going to Kiev, the delegation stopped in Brussels. They met with representatives of NATO and the European Union to discuss the security situation in Eastern Europe and the reinforcement of Russian troops along the Ukrainian border.
“Our transatlantic partners are critical relationships and alliances that we must continue to strengthen as we coordinate and foster unity on sanctions against Russia as well as other possible deterrent responses,” Houlahan said of his visit to Belgium.
In Kyiv, the delegation met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to discuss the security situation and strengthen support for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Houlahan said his main lesson from the meeting is that the Ukrainian people are resilient, but Moscow’s terrible threat to destabilize Europe through a possible new invasion or other aggressive actions cannot be tolerated.
“The bipartisan trip reaffirmed our broad commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty,” she said. “While we hope Russia will pursue diplomacy and dialogue as a path to peace, we were there to reassure Ukraine that we will do everything we can to diplomatically deter and punish the aggressive path that Moscow is pursuing.”
Houlahan said she would continue to push for tougher penalties and additional security assistance. She also wants to reassure NATO allies that the United States remains committed to its rock-solid security.
Ukraine was not the main reason Houlahan visited Reading, which is part of the district she represents.
She took part in a tour of local businesses, stopping at several Latino-owned establishments to learn how the pandemic has impacted their operations and what she can do in Congress to help. She was guided on her way out by Democratic State Rep. Manny Guzman.
His last stop was at the main branch of the Reading Public Library on South Fifth Street. Library chief executive Melissa Adams and Reading mayor Eddie Moran highlighted some of the important things that happened at the library.
Adams said the library will use the funds it received from the American Rescue Plan to launch a telemedicine outreach program for seniors, digitize its extensive Pennsylvania history collection, bolster its digital offerings, increase its Wi-Fi capability so people can use the connection outside. the building and continue to offer virtual programming.
It also offers assistance for people wishing to order the free COVID-19 test kits offered by the federal government.
“I’m so grateful for the work you do in our community,” Houlahan told Adams.
Houlahan said the US bailout was designed to help fund the kind of programs and services the library is working on that will impact the entire community.
“I’m so grateful that you’re taking advantage of the resources we’ve been able to provide and also innovating in how you do it,” she said.