Flag

This battle-scarred flag is part of a memorial that sits across the street from Ukraine’s National Cemetery. It belonged to a Ukranian military unit killed by Rusian troops in August 2014 during Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine, and was displayed by parliamentarians and diplomats during Russian president Vladimir Putin’s address to the U.N. General Assembly.

Today is Ukraine’s Independence Day. It marks 28 years of independence from the former Soviet Union. Last year at this time, I was in Ukraine visiting my son who is wrapping up his duties as a Peace Corps volunteer.

Ukraine is a wonderful, smart and vibrant country whose freedom didn’t come easy and is at risk more than ever today.

Ukraine’s history would be America’s worst nightmare. For the last thousand years, it has been occupied, split up, raped and massacred. I saw celebrated trees in Ukraine that were older than our country. Yet, in the here and now, its democracy was only re-established in 2014.

To get the most recent iteration of democracy, hundreds of thousands protested in Kyiv for months until a bloody end that saw the president flee to Russia. The national police force that shot hundreds of protesters was disbanded and legitimate elections were held.

Ukrainians want freedom and the human dignity that comes with it. They want a government that has equal power between the president and parliament so that a dictatorship isn’t possible. They want to elect representatives of the people, and more than anything, they want their borders respected and political independence.

Facing aggression

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was the world’s No. 3 in nukes. In 1994 Ukraine agreed to destroy the weapons. Professor John Mearsheimer, from the University of Chicago, predicted a Ukraine without any nuclear deterrent was likely to be subjected to aggression by Russia. Although it was a minority view at the time, it ended up being accurate.

So why then did Ukraine give up its nuclear deterrent? It was because of the Budapest Memorandum of Security Assurances signed in 1994 by Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States. China and France gave weaker assurances later in separate documents. The document included security assurances against threats or use of force against territorial integrity or political independence of Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan.

Russia isn’t running Facebook fake news in Ukraine, it is moving in and promoting a civil war in the eastern part of the country where some prefer Russia over Europe.

You can imagine the frustration when a country gives up its deterrent against aggression because of promised security assurances, only to see then President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry look on as its territorial integrity is shattered and its political independence threatened.

Ukraine is about the size of Texas. The military is equipped with new and old technology. I sat in a MiG aircraft at a war museum and saw the same model of MiG at the military base.

Ukraine is willing to fight anyone who threatens its freedom. Some aren’t able to fight full time, so they volunteer for shorter periods of time. Some can’t fight at all but are willing to deliver supplies. Everyone is committed at some level.

At one point during the 2014 protest of dignity in Kyiv, the national police gathered to push protesters out of the square. At the blessing of the bishop, the bells of the monastery near the square rang out, tens of thousands of Kyiv residents joined the protest and pushed the national police out of the square. That was the first time since an invasion in 1240 that all the bells were put to use.

Impossible to ignore

Until my trip it was easy to ignore what is happening in Ukraine. But after meeting with so many wonderful people and understanding some of what they have been through and fought for, I’ve got to ask, what do we stand for if we ignore a country that is fighting and dying for freedom and human dignity? They have been doing their part and sacrificing everything to get to this point over the last five years. When will the signers of the Budapest Memorandum keep their promises that ensure territorial integrity and political independence?

Whether they get help from their allies or not, Ukraine is moving forward. Education is important and young students are given the opportunity to learn English, Polish, German and Russian. They see the need to communicate with the rest of Europe and are betting that the next generations will help strengthen Ukraine’s economy. Some complained that young people are leaving to get better employment in neighboring countries. There also were complaints regarding high personal income tax and a weak, unstable currency compared to the Euro or U.S. dollar.

Some are still waiting for the government to provide opportunities. I must admit that when I heard that I told the gentleman to not wait for government, make things happen for yourself. He didn’t smack me, but I think he thought about it.

When things are more secure, will businesses around the world invest in Ukraine? It’s been called the breadbasket of Europe and it was easy to see why. The soil is rich, the climate is favorable for many crops, but technology is still catching up in many areas.

Pride of the people

The greatest hope for Ukraine comes from their passionate sense of pride in the recent freedom enjoyed and the deep appreciation they openly share for the past and present sacrifices made to preserve their political independence and security.

Think about it: They came together as a nation to overthrow an administration that wanted to take the country backwards to darker days. Like us, they want the best opportunities for their kids and grandkids and have gone the distance to ensure that happens.

There’s a documentary called “Winter on Fire.” It can be viewed on Netflix and YouTube. It chronicles the 2013/14 protest in Kyiv, the reasons behind it, the sacrifices made and the outcome. It’s worth watching.

Here’s to Ukraine and their celebration of independence and freedom. I keep them in my heart because I left a little bit of it there on my trip last year. Hopefully by reading this, your heart has been warmed a little.

Rickman is publisher of the Eau Claire Leader-Telegram.