DENVER – Dozens of people with ties to Ukraine rallied at the state Capitol in Denver Thursday afternoon in the wake of Russia’s invasion of the country as President Joe Biden announced sweeping new sanctions and Colorado’s governor said the state was ready to provide support for refugees and sever any possible ties with companies backed by the Kremlin.
After weeks of building up troops and military equipment along the Ukrainian border, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of Ukraine Wednesday night in the U.S., prompting a swift global and American reaction to issue new financial sanctions on Russian banks, oligarchs, and exports, as well as the expulsion of the No. 2 Russian diplomat from the United States.
“Between our actions and those of our allies and partners, we estimate that we’ll cut off more than half of Russia’s high-tech imports. We’ll strike a blow to their ability to continue to modernize their military,” Biden said. “…And it will be a major hit to Putin’s long-term strategic ambitions.”
As of Thursday afternoon in the U.S., Ukrainian officials said 137 Ukrainians had been killed and 306 more injured.
Rally for Ukraine at the Capitol
Several dozen people — some of them Ukrainian or of Ukrainian heritage, others from Georgia and Russia, and others who were there for support — rallied in favor of the Ukrainians outside the Capitol in Denver, saying they wanted to bring more awareness to the Russian invasion. There are about 11,000 Ukrainians living in Colorado, according to the state.
Lana Fenkanyn, who has family in eastern Ukraine, said her family was in hiding as their city was being shelled Thursday.
“I was ready to fly out to Chicago, do something, go somewhere, be with Ukrainians, and I’m very happy with the turnout today,” she said. “I actually didn’t know there are this many Ukrainians here and I think we all feel that way right now, and it’s great to be together.”
Like others who attended the rally, Fenkanyn said Ukrainians feel a strong sense of national pride after becoming independent in 1991 and the events of 2014, when revolutionaries overthrew the Kremlin-backed president in the Maidan revolution and Russia annexed Crimea.
“We took so long to get out of the Soviet Union and to get away from them, and it just shows that we’re still here and we’re still here to fight,” she said. “We were there in 2014 and we’ll be there today, and we’ll be there in 2050 or 3000. We’re not going anywhere and that runs in our blood. There’s no controlling it. We’re Ukrainian. We’re proud to be Ukrainian.”
Sophia Jarowyj, a college student whose mother and other family members are from Ukraine, said two of her uncles, ages 55 and 60, just reenlisted into the Ukrainian army to fight.
She said she just sobbed in her dorm room Tuesday night with her friends “for hours” when the invasion began, but also expressed the same Ukrainian pride as Fenkanyn and others.
“The urge to take a flight to Warsaw and drive to Ukraine is really strong. I really want to be out there to help people,” she said. “…Men are all on the front lines, ready to fight. My family is very patriotic, and they would rather die for their country than ever leave it.”
A Georgian woman named Tamar said she showed up to the rally to show solidarity with Ukraine after she lost her home in the Russian invasion of part of Georgia in 2008.
“I don’t want the same for the Ukrainian people. … I have hope, but nobody knows,” she said.
And a man named Yuri, who is originally from Russia, said he wanted to show solidarity with the Ukrainians because he “strongly condemns the war.” He arrived holding a sign that said “Stop Putin’s War.”
“I don’t think it’s in Russia’s interests, or Ukraine’s interest, or anybody’s interest. I think it’s just plain crazy,” he said. “I don’t know how to stop [Putin], but I think at this point the only way to stop him is to stop paying him billions of dollars for the natural gas.”
“He wants to reinstate the Soviet Union,” Yuri added. “To the Ukrainians, I think there is a lot of … strong support. One hundred percent support from me.”
Polis signs executive order seeking to keep Russian ties out of state government
Democratic Gov. Jared Polis showed up at the rally at the Capitol and told those gathered that “Colorado stands with Ukraine.”
Polis said he plans to write to the State Department and Ukrainian ambassador telling them Colorado will welcome Ukrainian refugees and is ready to provide any support necessary. The governor’s office said his administration wants to be sure state agencies “are in no way supporting the Russian government and that the state is barring any influence of the Russian government or Russian-backed interests in the State wherever possible.”
He signed an executive order to have state agencies review state contracts to find out if any are tied to any Russian state-owned companies and to terminate those contracts if they exist.
The order also directs the Office of Information technology to focus on protecting Colorado’s critical infrastructure from Russian cyberattacks or misinformation.
“Colorado will not stand for this attack on freedom and democracy. Our country must make Putin pay and continue to use our economic power to push back on Russia’s aggressive invasion of Ukraine,” Polis said. “Today, my administration outlined how Colorado will welcome Ukrainian refugees, divest from any potential Russian state-owned assets, urge higher education institutions to review and reconsider any grants or projects they have with Russia and divest endowments from Russian owned assets while evaluating and terminating any state contracts with Kremlin-owned entities.”
Polis said Colorado would also be removed from coverage of the Russian consular office based in Houston.
Reaction from Colorado’s congressional delegation
After the incursion got underway, Colorado’s Democratic members of Congress called for the immediate punishment of Putin.
Sen. Michael Bennet, the Democrat who sits on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, called on the U.S. to issue “the full weight of economic sanctions” and to explore more options to boost the Ukrainian military.
Rep. Jason Crow, who sits on the House Armed Service and Intelligence committees, called for some of the sanctions that Biden issued Thursday morning, including greatly restricting Russia’s access to parts of the international financial system and a bolstering of NATO’s stance in Europe.
“Putin’s goal is clear: to redraw borders to reestablish the Soviet bloc and usurp democracy in Europe and throughout the world,” Crow said. “The U.S. and international response must be swift and crippling.”
Rep. Diana DeGette said blame for the attack on Ukraine lies solely with Putin and said he should pay “a tremendous price” for his and Russia’s actions. Rep. Joe Neguse said the U.S. “must stand for the rule of law & impose severe sanctions.”
Rep. Ed Perlmutter said he supported the “swift and severe response” from the administration and America’s allies.
“The U.S. and our allies should use every tool in its toolbox to punish Russia while continuing to support Ukraine’s sovereignty and the Ukrainian people,” he said.
“Working with our allies, we must enact crippling sanctions & show Putin the consequences of his tyranny will be devastating for Russia,” said Sen. John Hickenlooper.
But he said in an interview he is not convinced they will work and that he is worried we may again be on the brink of another cold war.
“I’m terrified they won’t work. I think they’re what we have to do,” Hickenlooper said. “...Putin is not going to give up. He’s given every indication of being a little bit on that crazy, you know, that kind of demagogue thing, where he’s just so full of himself and so consumed with his own power that he might do anything. And obviously, I think we should be and I think we are ready for anything.”
Meanwhile, several of Colorado’s Republican leaders placed the blame for Russia’s invasion on Biden. A few of them pointed to the same oil and gas talking points on the halting of the Keystone XL Pipeline project, which was only 8% complete when Biden pulled its permits on his first day in office, and for waiving sanctions on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany last year – though Biden will indeed sanction the company building the pipeline, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
“Weakness invites aggression,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo. “Although the blood of innocent Ukrainians is on Putin’s hands, it is Joe Biden’s failures that set the stage.”
Colorado GOP Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown said, “It seems that Putin has been emboldened by a lack of American leadership.”
Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., also used energy prices as a foil in a statement and claimed Biden “has allowed Russia to weaponize its energy on the world stage” and “has put the American people, and our interests around the world, last.”
In an appearance on Newsmax, Rep. Ken Buck, R-Colo., suggested modernizing America’s nuclear weapons stock and said he believes Biden will ask for more in the defense budget. He added that he believes Biden could start increasing oil and gas production in the U.S. to try to cut down on rising prices but that he was not sure Biden would. And he said that Putin himself should be sanctioned – a question Biden sidestepped during his news conference when asked by a reporter.
Biden announces new sanctions, acknowledges energy crunch
In his address to the nation and reporters Thursday, Biden acknowledged the sanctions would take time to have an effect and said his administration was working to limit the pocketbook hit on Americans.
“My administration is using every tool at our disposal to protect American families and businesses from rising prices at the gas pump,” he said. “We’re taking active steps to bring down the cost, and American oil and gas companies should not exploit this moment to raise profits. In our sanctions package, we specifically designed to allow energy payments to continue.”
Biden said his administration was monitoring global energy supplies and working with other countries to release some strategic reserves.
“The United States will release additional barrels of oil as conditions warrant. I know this is hard and that Americans are already hurting,” Biden said. “I will do everything in my power to limit the pain the American people are feeling at the gas pump. This is critical to me. But this aggression cannot go unanswered.”
He also said that the sanctions will take a few weeks to influence the Russian economy, but that he believed they will be effective.
“[Putin’s] not going to say, ‘Oh my God, these sanctions are coming, I’m going to stand down.’ He’s going to test the resolve of the west to see if we stay together. And we will. We will and it will impose significant costs on him,” Biden said.
Experts say more could have been done sooner for Ukraine, that oil reserves should help
Jack Strauss, the Miller Chair of Applied Economics at the University of Denver’s Daniels School of Business, said the U.S. gets about 7% of its oil from Russia but has enough in its reserves that it should be able to release those strategic reserves and keep prices down.
“The Russian exports … it takes several months with the oil tankers to fill up, go to the refineries and then refine the oil and then get to the gas pump,” Strauss said. “So that’s not going to hit us for at least 4-6 weeks. So, panic at the gas pump is one of the worst things we could do.”
Christoph Stefes, a political science professor at the University of Colorado Denver who specializes in Europe, the South Caucasus, and autocratic regimes, said in an interview he believes the Russian invasion of Ukraine may have been in the works for months or years and that it would be hard to judge exactly how the sanctions affect Putin and Russia.
“I’ve seen Putin’s speeches in the last few days. I feel that he becomes more and more unhinged. It becomes less and less rational. And it becomes so obvious what this is all about,” Stefes said. “This has nothing to do with the West circling Russia. It has all to do with Russia trying to come back and revive the glory of the Soviet Union when it built its empire after the Bolshevik Revolution.”
Stefes said the Biden administration should be praised for helping unite Europe and the transatlantic relationship as NATO works to stand against the invasion of Ukraine and any other potential moves Putin might make.
“Everything that I hear from officials … is that this is, again, an environment of mutual trust. And we haven’t had that since 2016,” he said.
But he believes more action should have been taken by the U.S. and its allies in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia or in 2014 when it annexed Crimea.
“Obviously, NATO cannot go into Ukraine, that would start World War 3. That’s out of the question. We cannot even supply weapons anymore at this point, because how would we get them in? How would we get the Ukrainians trained?” he said. “This is all way too late — 2014, that was a moment the West should have decided to build up the Ukrainian forces, train them, make them a credible adversary. And it didn’t happen.”
Though Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy ordered a full military mobilization to fight Russia Thursday afternoon, Stefes said he believes that Ukrainian officials will surrender within the next five to eight days.
“I believe that the president of Ukraine is a very rational, level-headed person, and as soon as the situation is lost, he will surrender,” Stefes said. “I’m pretty sure about that. And that is probably a good thing to prevent further bloodshed. The Ukrainians cannot stand up to the Russian problem. … It is lost.”
Denver7's Sean Towle, Jon Ewing and Meghan Lopez contributed to this report.