Interviews & Profiles

City Council Member Inna Vernikov on the war in Ukraine, Putin and Trump

The newly minted Brooklyn council member, who was born in Ukraine, talks about how she’s helping Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion and their relatives in New York.

New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov.

New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov. Courtesy of the New York City Council Member Inna Vernikov Campaign

Council Member Inna Vernikov, a Jewish Ukrainian American who represents Brooklyn’s 48th District, has become a prominent public face for the Ukrainian community in the U.S. during the Russian invasion. Two months after taking office, she has spent countless hours on the phone with advocates, fellow lawmakers and community organizers in Ukraine to discuss ways they can support humanitarian efforts and provide information to Ukrainian American constituents who are concerned about their families overseas. Among four Republicans on the Council, Vernikov was invited to speak at the GOP convention on Tuesday, where she said Russian President Vladmir Putin has “officially lost his mind,” a sentiment she elaborated on in an interview with City & State later Tuesday. 

Questions and answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.

This must be a very emotional time for you. How are you feeling personally?

I'm feeling extremely sad, frustrated and angry. I'm trying to do the best that I can from where I'm sitting right now. 

I think Putin has gone completely off the wall. He was always a tyrant, but I think he’s absolutely insane at this point. He's trying to bring back the Soviet Union. I’m afraid that if he takes over the entire Ukraine, he is going to go further, starting with the Baltic countries. He believes those places are an extension of Russia. He wants to unite them and install a puppet government in these places. The Ukrainian people do not want to live in the Soviet Union again. They want freedom. They want to have Western values.

What are some of the specific efforts that you're involved in now? 

I just had a call with Rep. (Nicole) Malliotakis to discuss what we can do to give people clarity about their refugee status if they’re located in Ukraine and what they need to do to get out. These matters will have to be taken up by Congress members and their federal partners. All we can do is guide concerned family members of Ukrainians to let them know which Congress persons to reach out to. 

In terms of humanitarian aid, we’ve been getting a lot of calls from people who want to donate supplies and money. I know from speaking to people on the ground who have set up some refugee camps that the main issue they're having right now is supplies. There are supplies that are located on certain borders, like in Poland, but they're having a hard time releasing them. I’m organizing a drive through the Jewish emergency medical services nonprofit Hatzalah for supplies that will be flown to Ukraine and other refugees around the world. I’m recommending people donate to vetted organizations that I listed in a recent tweet.

What are you hearing from friends and others in Ukraine who are there right now? How are they coping?

So the majority of the people that I'm connected with in Ukraine are in western Ukraine. They're in my hometown of Chernivtsi, which is not being bombed right now and is essentially being used as a big refugee camp. A lot of people from Kyiv and the territories that are being bombed are escaping into those towns. I spoke to a former classmate who is there, a member of the government in Chernivtsi, and one of the chief rabbis of Ukraine who has been transporting people out of danger zones. 

Tell me about growing up in Ukraine, prior to emigrating here in 1996 when you were 12 years old.

We came as refugees. First my aunts came, then my grandmother came, and then my parents and siblings and I came with the rest of the family years later. We came here for freedom, for a better life, for the American dream. This is a place we escaped to.

I was born into the Soviet Union, and there was a lot of antisemitism at that time. I grew up under communist rule. It was very hard to get food. You had to stand in lines to buy a loaf of bread or a bottle of milk. There was nothing on the shelves. There was no free speech. Any media we had was state sponsored. So it was, you know, difficult times during the Soviet Union. 

What are your memories 2014 when Russia seized the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine?

It was an absolutely awful, awful time, and there was a lot of Russian propaganda going around that we are seeing come up again now.

How have you seen Russian propaganda play a role in the current crisis?

There has been Russian state-sponsored TV right here in New York City. They are trying to convince Ukrainians that America is using Ukraine to start a war with Russia and that Ukraine becoming a part of NATO would create more legitimate security concerns.

There was a kindergarten bombed in Ukraine, and the the Russian news channels are saying that the kindergarten was bombed by Ukrainians. The Russians are killing civilians, and then blaming it on Ukraine to get the people of Ukraine mad at Ukraine.

I think it’s a very small minority of people compared to those who are supporting Ukraine, but I do see people sharing the propaganda on social media, and this is what my friends in Ukraine are saying as well. I’ve actually been contacted by some people who are angry about the beliefs I’ve been expressing condemning the violence being carried out by Russia.

Putin has claimed that this military effort was part of a “denazification” of Ukraine, a statement that has drawn widespread backlash. What was your reaction to this?

Calling the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a “Nazi” is absolutely preposterous. Members of his family died in the Holocaust. He's by no means a Nazi. Putin is trying to brainwash the people of Ukraine and Russia.

There has been a lot of discussion in recent days about Republican Party politics regarding Russia, namely that Trump – who you are aligned with and who still holds a lot of sway in the GOP – has praised Putin. What was your reaction to Trump calling Putin a “genius” following his declaration of the two Ukrainian territories’ independence?

I think the media is misinterpreting what Trump is saying. I don't think that calling Putin a genius is showing him support or saying that he's a good guy. I think that calling him a genius is saying he's got a strategy. He's got a smart plan. Knowing Trump and the way he does some of his messaging, which I think people tend to misinterpret, and you know, understandably so, I think that's not what he means to say.

But this isn’t something new. He has praised Putin for years.

I think that people need to get over it. I think Trump is not the president anymore. We have a different president. His name is President Biden. And I think we need to focus on what he's doing and what he's not doing, not what President Trump is tweeting or saying.

How do you feel about the Biden administration's dealings with Russia?

I think that we have a president who's asleep. I think that if we had stronger leadership that we would not be in this situation to begin with. Obviously, I don't have a crystal ball. This is just my opinion. But I think that if President Biden did what members of Congress encouraged him to do a month ago, he would have implemented sanctions then and had President Putin see him as the leader of the free world like he should, I don’t think Putin would have started this war to begin with. But I think because he sees President Biden as so weak, he felt emboldened to start this attack. And if you look at the disastrous pullout we had from the Afghanistan war, you could understand why Putin was so emboldened.