WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Donald Trump’s praise of Russian President Vladimir Putin and inconsistent comments about NATO are unnerving some U.S. voters of eastern European heritage, creating a political opening that Democrats are targeting in key swing states.
More than 15 million Americans claim some central and eastern European ancestry. Many live in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, hotly contested states ahead of the Nov. 8 election between Republican Trump and Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.
Many of those voters tend to lean conservative and Republican. But Clinton’s campaign, seeing an opportunity to capitalize on concerns about Moscow’s actions on the global stage, including its 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula from Ukraine, is reaching out to them at community gatherings.
In Sunday’s second presidential debate in St. Louis, Trump said: “I think it would be great if we got along with Russia because we could fight ISIS together,” referring to the Islamic State militant group. Last month, he described Putin as a better leader than U.S. President Barack Obama.
Trump said in March the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, formed after World War Two to counter Soviet military might, was obsolete. In July, he suggested the United States might walk away from some of its NATO commitments if other members did not pay more for their defense. In September, he said in a debate: “I‘m all for NATO.”
Russia and NATO are sensitive subjects in eastern and central Europe and for some Americans with ties to the region.
“We have been absolutely petrified ... we can’t believe the statements Donald Trump is making,” said Andrij Dobriansky, spokesman for the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, an umbrella group for about a million Ukrainian-Americans.
Marina Kuchar, a Ukrainian-American from Pennsylvania who arrived in the United States in 2000, said she liked many Republican ideas. But Kuchar, 44, told Reuters in an interview she would not vote for Trump “because he thinks Putin is smart.”
Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment.
Voters in America’s eastern European diaspora communities are influenced by many issues, such as jobs and the economy, and their numbers are not comparatively large, but Democrats are paying attention to them.
The Clinton team for months has been visiting eastern European-American parades and festivals, said John McCarthy, director of the campaign’s “heritage community outreach.”
”Our activists, who have been out front and center at these events, will have people come up to them and say: ‘I’ve never voted for a Democrat before, but Donald Trump’s pro-Kremlin ties are ... giving me second thoughts,'” McCarthy said.
In recent years, Russian foreign policy has become more assertive, stirring tensions with the United States and its allies over such issues as the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria, and the presence of NATO troops in eastern Europe.
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, but the Crimea annexation rekindled eastern European anxiety about Russian power.
A group of Lithuanian-Americans was so concerned about tensions in eastern Europe, where fighting continues between Ukrainian government forces and Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, that it asked for and got an off-the-record White House briefing last week. The group declined to discuss details.
Diana Vidutis, spokeswoman for Lithuanian-American Community Inc, told Reuters: “We were absolutely shocked that one of the candidates considered abandoning our commitment to NATO.”
Her group promotes Lithuanian culture for 600,000 Lithuanian-Americans. Their ancestral homeland is one of three small Baltic states formerly part of the Soviet Union. All three have joined NATO. The other two are Estonia and Latvia.
Clinton spoke to such concerns while campaigning in Ohio last week. In an Oct. 3 speech in Akron, home to thousands of Americans from eastern Europe, she said Trump “has a weird fascination with dictators like Vladimir Putin.”
“We have a lot of people living in this part of Ohio who either themselves, or their parents or grandparents, came from countries that were under the yoke of oppression, and we’re never going to let that happen again,” Clinton said.
There are signs that Trump is trying to allay the anxiety he has created. He visited the Polish-American Congress in Chicago on Sept. 28 where he gave his assurance that as president, he would support NATO and the security of Poland.
Poland, once part of the Soviet-dominated Warsaw Pact, shook off communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union and joined NATO.
Many Ukrainian-Americans in Pennsylvania’s coal country are likely to support Trump, who has promised to bring back coal industry jobs, said Paula Holoviak, a political science professor at Kutztown University and a Ukrainian-American.
Holoviak, a Clinton supporter who lives in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County, added: “This is smack dab in the middle of Trump country.”
Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Peter Cooney