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‘It’s bullying at its rawest form’: Honorary Consul of Ukraine in Utah denounces Russian invasion

“The people in Ukraine are frightened. They’re frightened literally for their lives, for their children,” Jonathan Freedman said.

(Emile Ducke | The New York Times) People line up at a long-distance bus station in the center of Kyiv, as Russia's invasion of Ukraine began with rocket attacks here in the capital and in other major cities on the morning of Thursday, Feb. 24, 2022.

The day after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine started, Honorary Consul of Ukraine Jonathan Freedman denounced the invasion and repudiated any notion that Ukraine is at fault for the conflict.

“These events of aggression are terribly sad and unfortunate for innocent Ukrainian families that are just trying to lead their lives,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune Thursday. “They didn’t ask for this. They did nothing to initiate an attack. It’s bullying at its rawest form. It’s completely unprovoked.”

Freedman has served as an honorary consul of Ukraine since 2008, after living in the country as a missionary for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1993 to 1995. He said he served primarily in eastern Ukraine, in the city of Donetsk, a region that Russian President Vladimir Putin recognized as independent on Monday as a pretext for invasion.

Freedman joined others in Utah who spoke out Thursday against Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

Freedman has kept in contact with people there and described the messages he has received since the invasion began, saying, “The people in Ukraine are frightened. They’re frightened literally for their lives, for their children. ... It’s really sad, because at this point they have no options. And they’re really just stuck.”

Jonathan Freedman, the honorary consul of Ukraine for Utah.

Freedman noted that Utah is home to around 1,500 Ukrainians, many of whom currently fear for their friends and family still living in the country. Two of those Ukrainians are Irina Slaughter and her daughter, Elena Nazarenko.

Slaughter moved to Utah with her daughter about 18 years ago when her daughter was 13. Slaughter’s mother and her aunt are living in Odesa, a city in the southern region of the country.

Slaughter said her mother told her their city is “mostly quiet,” and their transportation is still functioning, although they have heard bombs.

“I’m just appalled with the way Putin handled the situation,” Slaughter said. “My mom, she is optimistic, she’s hoping [for] a positive and peaceful result of the situation... She hopes and believes that it will be resolved, maybe, in a week and is positive they will come to some agreement.”

Slaughter feels that sanctions from the UK and US are a good start in responding to the invasion, but she wishes countries would’ve stepped in earlier regarding Russia’s actions — particularly with the construction of a gas pipeline connecting Russia to Germany, which she said was aimed to “strangle the Ukrainian economy.”

“Ukraine is definitely underpowered, compared to Russia,” Nazarenko said. “There’s no question that Putin is a bully. He’s making excuses to invade Ukraine without justification.”

When asked what Utahns could do to help the embattled nation, Slaughter asked that people just keep the people of Ukraine and its soldiers in their thoughts. Freedman also urged people to phone their representatives and ask for aid for Ukraine.

“We encourage people to call the White House,” he said, “to call our two senators in Utah and to ask for stronger sanctions, to ask for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, to, quite frankly, pray for Ukraine and for Ukrainians and for their country, which is very much at risk of being lost.”

Freedman has also been in contact with the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and its ambassador, who is working to combat misinformation about the conflict.

“On this somber morning, my heart is breaking and my thoughts are with the people of Ukraine,” Salt Lake County Mayor Jenny Wilson said in a statement Thursday. “This premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified act of war must unite us in compassion, as together we stand against tyranny.”

Daniel Gibbons, a former Holladay Justice Court judge and practicing attorney, taught law students in Ukraine yearly for more than a decade between 2006 to 2017. He also served as a Latter-day Saint mission president in Russia from 2011 to 2014.

He said Thursday he wasn’t surprised by Russian forces invading Ukraine. He said he saw signs it could happen for years, beginning about the time his mission presidency ended and Russia annexed Crimea.

He saw a “marked increase” in what he called “governmental scrutiny and detention.” Gibbons said authorities detained him, his wife and other American missionaries several times.

He said that he also heard from eastern Ukrainians who supported the idea of absorbing the Russian-speaking parts of their country into the Russian Federation. But he noted how different his conversations were with those he’s spoken in Russia and Ukraine.

“The Ukrainians are outraged. They’re vocal. They are standing strong,” he said. “The ordinary Russian citizens that I’ve talked to, that are friends of mine, are very reluctant to speak out. They’re reluctant to put a target on themselves. They also, it’s pretty clear to me, are getting a filtered version of the news.”

He called the invasion “the most significant geopolitical event in Europe since World World II” and feared it could undo he and Utah County Attorney David Leavitt’s years of work teaching the American legal system to law students in Ukraine.

Leavitt and his wife, Chelom, founded the group that brought Gibbons to Ukraine to teach, and Leavitt also spent more than a decade there teaching law students.

The county attorney said he spent Thursday morning trying to reach his friends there to make sure they are safe. It left him feeling helpless.

“I’m extremely sad,” Leavitt said. “Some of my dearest friends in the world are literally fleeing for their lives as we speak.”

He said he was eating chicken soup with a woman and her son in their apartment three weeks ago who are “now in the long traffic jam trying to get out of Kyiv to get to Poland.”

Leavitt owns an apartment in Kyiv, and traveled there last month to collect paperwork proving ownership of that apartment and other personal items as threats of the Russian invasion loomed. He ended up stuck in Amsterdam for a week on his trip back to Utah because he tested positive for COVID-19.

During his years in Ukraine, Leavitt said he taught law students the principles of American jury trials, showing them how court systems work without bribes.

He said, “When law students in Ukraine come to the realization that we’re asking them to not participate in a corrupt system…it becomes a very somber and solemn moment for them.”

Thursday was also a somber day for Leavitt, who said his time in Ukraine influenced his legal career. His students’ confusion over American plea deals made him realize the shortcomings of the U.S. criminal justice system. He is now outspoken about wanting reform.

“If Americans believe that allowing Vladimir Putin just in a wholesale fashion to invade and take a country, that’s going to not affect every American life and every life in the world, they’re kidding themselves,” he said. “This is a moment in time when the world has to stand up against this.”

Gibbons said he feared Russia’s invasion into Ukraine will be a pretense for future invasions of former-Soviet Republic countries, like Moldova and Kazakhstan.

He called Thursday “devastating” for Europe and, of course, Ukraine.

“Ukraine is a beautiful country, and it is a country that was truly on its road to absolute freedom: freedom of thought, freedom of expression,” he said. “It’s just sad to see this put down by military force.”

Jean Hill, who is the director of life, justice and peace with the Catholic Diocese of Salt Lake City, told The Tribune in an email, “We join with Pope Francis in his call for prayer and fasting for peace in Ukraine and the protection of innocent lives.”

“We encourage our government leaders to welcome any Ukrainian refugees displaced by these senseless acts of aggression and urge people to aid our Ukrainian brothers and sisters by donating to the efforts of Catholic Relief Services, which is already serving people in need in Ukraine,” she said.

This story will be updated.