Our nation’s own explosive political environment has thrust Ukraine onto the front pages and into the cable news arena these past few weeks. But exciting things happening in Ukraine have deserved Americans’ attention far earlier. As we focus on the country now, I think it’s helpful to take a step back from today’s headlines and recall what the Ukrainian people have experienced if we want to better understand their present hopes and aspirations, as well as the roles of their leaders in our own national political stories.
Although it obtained independence following the collapse of the Soviet Union, Ukraine’s transition to democracy has been difficult. One reason is because their neighbor, Russia, has helped to make it difficult. Russia’s desire to keep Ukraine in its sphere of influence has led to decades of election meddling and political corruption. But this has only made the Ukrainian people yearn more for peace, democracy and the rule of law that we enjoy in the West.
By 2014, the desire for these things resulted in the Revolution of Dignity, which began after then-President Viktor Yanukovich failed to sign the European Union Association Agreement. The agreement was supported by a plurality of Ukrainians who wanted to see their country become part of the West. The Ukrainian people came out in force to protest their government’s failure to support European integration. Protestors occupied Maidan Nezalezhnosti (Independence Square), which led to the deaths of many at the hands of government forces. After months of protests and many casualties, the corrupt President Yanukovych fled to his patrons in Russia.
Free and fair elections brought a pro-European Parliament as well as a new President, Petro Poroshenko, who looked West to fulfill the aspirations of the Ukrainian people.
This the Kremlin could not accept. In February 2014, military forces from Russia violated Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity when they invaded Crimea and Donbas. This was not only a violation of international law, but of the Budapest Memorandum, an agreement under which Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States provided security assurances against military threats to Ukraine. The conflict in Donbas has cost the lives of more than 13,000 Ukrainians, including many civilians.
Our own 2016 Presidential Election was, unfortunately, the first time many Americans learned that Russia interferes in the domestic affairs of sovereign states through social media and their state-owned media outlets like RT and Ruptly. The Ukrainians have been engulfed in this type of war with Russia as well. They aren’t falling for Russian propaganda, and neither should we when faced with it in our own society and in our own elections.
Amid these multifront wars with Russia, Ukraine held another presidential election earlier this year. I was fortunate to be an official observer of the second round of that election in April. Volodymyr Zelenskyy stunned the world by defeating the incumbent president with 73 percent of the vote. This young comedian and television actor rallied the country for change, but no one could foresee the quick positive reforms he would enact.
President Zelenskyy promised to end the corruption of the past. He called for new parliamentary elections that gave his party a majority in the Verkhovna Rada. The parliament immediately adopted, and the president signed, a new law abolishing immunity for current members of parliament. At the initiative of Zelenskyy, parliament also approved the sale of private farmland, which had been held up for a decade.
The new president promised to look West and he did. Zelenskyy’s first visit was to Brussels, where he met with leaders of the European Union and NATO. He has publicly stated a desire to have closer ties with both. Since then he has also visited Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw.
While he has not met face-to-face with President Vladimir Putin, over the course of three phone calls he successfully negotiated with him for the release of 35 Ukrainian prisoners — though given their lack of involvement in the conflict, “hostages” may be a better word. Of those released, 24 were sailors captured after Russia illegally seized their ships in the Kerch Strait. Another was a Ukrainian filmmaker held by Russia on bogus terrorism charges.
Most Americans and Europeans have not paid enough attention to these events in Ukraine. Others doubt that anyone can get a handle on corruption and hold a steady course toward Western values. Others just don’t want to be bothered. But after visiting Ukraine again this month with my congressional colleagues, we are committed to continuing to champion the cause of unwavering support for Ukraine.
As we said in a bipartisan statement after the visit, we saw how the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative is supporting Ukrainian troops and bolstering Ukrainian security and defense. U.S. programs have contributed Javelins (man-portable anti-tank missiles), night vision devices, communications equipment, Humvees, and more, all of which are vital to Ukraine defending its sovereignty and deterring further Russian aggression. During our visit to Yavoriv, we observed training and cooperation that promotes NATO interoperability. We will continue our close security cooperation.
I also urge restraint to those who would drag Ukraine, and President Zelenskyy, into the scorched earth politics of personal destruction practiced here at home these days. Ukraine is caught in a very real war against Russia, and they need the encouragement and reassurance of the United States’ friendship and support. Peace, democracy, freedom, and the rule of law is all that Ukraine is asking for. We should support that by respecting their duly elected leader and continuing to aid them in the fight against our common enemy.