Tensions have eased for the moment, but the country is not out of the woods yet
Apr. 23, 2021
Ukraine has struggled since 1991 to get away from its Soviet past, and this year — as many of its anti-corruption efforts have been coming to fruition — Russia threatened its existence once more. Earlier this week, Moscow amassed more troops along Ukraine’s borders than it did before it invaded the country in 2014. It also stopped diesel fuel shipments and restricted flights over Crimea and the Black Sea.
These aggressive moves put the world on edge, but U.S. President Joe Biden vowed to support Ukraine, and Britain dispatched two warships to the region. On April 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned his people that war may be imminent and requested a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to avert violence.
The next day, Putin agreed to meet Zelensky (on conditions that were unacceptable), then Moscow announced a pullback of some troops, but armaments remained along the border. Tensions have eased for the moment, but the country is not out of the woods yet. Was Putin testing Biden or Zelensky, or was he simply trying to rattle Ukraine’s cage? We’ll never know, but Ukraine, like the imprisoned and dying Alexei Navalny, is Putin’s favourite punching bag because both represent existential threats to his regime.
I’ve been deeply involved with Ukraine since 1991. I have visited dozens of times as a journalist, helped found the Canadian-Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce and have supported anti-corruption efforts there as a writer and senior fellow with the Atlantic Council in Washington, D.C.
This is a reflection of the fact that Canada, and its Ukrainian diaspora, has played a key role in Ukraine’s rebirth. Canada was the first Western country to recognize Ukrainian independence, thanks to the leadership of Ukrainian-Canadian Governor General Ray Hnatyshyn and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Ukraine’s departure singularly pulled the rug out from under the Soviet Union — an event that Putin described as the “greatest geopolitical disaster in history.” Ever since, he has sought to recapture Ukraine, because of its strategic importance.
Ukraine was the breadbasket of the Soviet Union and is now one of the most important agricultural exporters in the world. It was also the Soviet Union’s equivalent of Silicon Valley — the Soviet space program, aerospace industry, tech world, bio-sciences capability and weapons expertise were centred in Ukraine.
This is why the country remains technologically advanced, and its IT sector — with hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian technology experts, software architects and engineers — is a huge economic engine that serves clients around the world.
My first visit to Ukraine was in February 1992, just as the Soviet Union was dismantled. Kyiv was grim, grey and cold, but the people were warm. I interviewed its genteel president, Leonid Kravchuk, as well as other politicians, military leaders and ordinary citizens. They were unsure of where the country should go next, and members of the Canadian diaspora came forward to help.
In 1995, for example, I helped launch a newspaper in Kyiv with a friend, Toronto lawyer Bob Onyschuk, and some Ukrainian partners, which became profitable and was stolen months later by a Ukrainian oligarch. The country then entered a notably dark period under President Leonid Kuchma, when journalists were murdered or went missing, and the Russian model of giving away the country’s wealth to family and chosen oligarchs who bought and sold politicians was adopted.
Ukraine’s post-Soviet years were not guided and financed by the European Union, unlike Poland or the Czech Republic, where governments, police and courts were cleaned up. Fortunately, Ukraine had one characteristic that the rest of the former Soviet bloc countries did not have: a large, cohesive and motivated civil society, mostly borne out of churches and social clubs. This unique strength in numbers resulted in massive street protests that overthrew two crooked regimes.
I covered the first mass protest, called the Orange Revolution, for the National Post in 2004 and watched as one million Ukrainians gathered nightly in frigid temperatures holding candles in the centre of Kyiv to overturn a rigged election.
Tents and portable soup kitchens were set up by volunteers, the atmosphere was joyous and buskers entertained the enormous crowds. A stage had been erected where the beautiful, braided Yulia Tymoshenko and her political partner, Viktor Yushchenko, rallied spirits nightly. He had been badly disfigured after being poisoned by Russian agents.
The two formed a government but corruption overwhelmed any reform efforts. In 2010, a Putin puppet named Viktor Yanukovych became president, thanks to Paul Manafort (yes, Donald Trump’s campaign chair in 2016) who cleaned up the crook’s image and ran a slick campaign.
But in 2014, Yanukovych reversed a policy aimed at joining the European Union and replaced it with one aimed at rejoining Russia and the streets exploded. This became known as the Revolution of Dignity, and lasted months. But it came to an abrupt end, as did Yanukovych’s presidency, after Russian snipers shot 100 peaceful protesters. Fearing for his life, Yanukovych fled to Moscow, with an estimated $100 billion worth of stolen funds.
An interim government staged rapid elections, but Russia took advantage and invaded. During his four years in office, Yanukovych had pruned the Ukrainian military and sold off its newest equipment to other countries for personal profit, in order to pave the way for a Russian takeover. Putin’s plan was to invade and annex the eastern half of Ukraine, to the Dnieper River and Kyiv, an area the size of Germany.
Ukraine’s people united to repel Russia. The diaspora sent money and supplies. Farmers went to the front, militias formed to help troops, veterans left their jobs to join the cause, volunteers provided food and ambulances and tech-savvy Ukrainians created a website to crowd-source funds to repair tanks and buy medicine, tents and other supplies. This was Ukraine’s finest hour, a nation-saving rescue equivalent to the Dunkirk evacuation in 1940, when a flotilla of small boats saved Allied forces from being slaughtered by the Nazis.
The invasion was stopped, but the damage was considerable. Crimea was annexed. Ukraine’s industrial heartland, known as Donbas, remained occupied and $30 billion worth of infrastructure was removed or destroyed. Roughly 14,000 people died, and two million Ukrainians fled the occupied territories, which are still run by Russian thugs and militias, and resettled with relatives and friends in the rest of the country. Russia now occupies an area of Ukraine the size of Latvia.
Ukrainians have struggled for 30 years. Besides battling their own rotten oligarchy and corrupt governments, they have continued to be victimized by the Kremlin and its criminal schemes. Ukrainian oligarchs have looted the place and corrupted the country’s politicians, judiciary and governments. However, Ukraine now has a relatively free press, a quasi-democratic system and, most importantly, a desire to become European and free itself of corruption.
And that has made all the difference. Unlike those in Kazakhstan or Belarus or the others, Ukrainians were never totally colonized. And since the 2014 war, Ukraine has gradually eliminated electoral fraud and established a national police force, an anti-corruption court and an independent central bank.
Between 2014 and 2019, the country secured backing and advice from the International Monetary Fund, the European Union, Canada and the United States, to keep the lights on and create the largest army in Europe. These efforts culminated in truly free elections in 2019, which delivered a landslide vote for an anti-corruption president and parliament.
This heroic journey is important to the world. Ukraine is the line in the sand, in the Cold War 2.0, against the most dangerous man in the world and his nuclear arsenal. So “Slava Ukraini,” or “Glory to Ukraine.” Everyone should give thanks to the world’s 44 million Ukrainians and their steadfast diaspora.