The day after Ukraine and Ukrainians around the globe celebrated Ukrainian Independence Day, a great friend and supporter of our ancestral homeland, U.S. Sen. John McCain passed away. Condolences poured in from world leaders. Social media were filled with tributes to Sen. McCain from Ukrainians here in the United States, leaders and citizens in Ukraine, and Ukrainians throughout the world.
The Arizona Republican was hailed as a war hero, a true patriot who worked in bipartisan fashion for the good of the United States, a great defender of liberty at home and abroad, a man of great courage and conviction, an inspiration to millions. Our own comment, posted on Facebook when we heard the sad news, noted: “Ukrainians will always remember John McCain on the Maidan… Vichnaya pamiat.”
Forever etched in our memory are scenes of Sen. McCain, along with Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), on the Maidan in Kyiv on December 15, 2013, when he addressed hundreds of thousands gathered to demonstrate their pro-Europe stance in the face of the Yanukovych administration’s decision to shelve an Association Agreement with the European Union. “We are here because your peaceful process and peaceful protest is inspiring your country and inspiring the world,” Sen. McCain said on the Ukrainian capital’s central square. “To all Ukraine, America stands with you. …The free world is with you, America is with you, I am with you. Ukraine will make Europe better, and Europe will make Ukraine better.” The ecstatic crowd responded with chants of “Molodtsi.” It was the middle of the fourth week of the Euro-Maidan protests, which later became known as the Revolution of Dignity.
Fast forward to December 31, 2016 – well over two and a half years after Russia had invaded Ukraine – to another scene we shall always remember. Accompanied by Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko and U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, as well as his Senate colleagues Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Sen. McCain visited Ukrainian soldiers in the country’s war-torn eastern region. “I send the message from the American people – we are with you, your fight is our fight, and we will win together,” he told the troops at a forward command post in Shyrokyne.
In Ukraine, the passing of Sen. McCain is deeply felt. He was always one of Ukraine’s staunchest supporters, but especially so in recent years after Russia launched its war on a neighboring state with which it had signed a Treaty of Friendship, Cooperation and Partnership back in 1997.
President Poroshenko wrote on Facebook: “We will never forget his invaluable contribution to the development of democracy and freedom in Ukraine and the support of our state. The senator was with Ukrainians on the Maidan and he lifted the spirits of Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas. The memory of John McCain will remain in our hearts forever.” In another Facebook post (in Ukrainian), the president noted: “He was a great friend of Ukraine and he devoted a portion of his life to defend Ukraine and Ukrainians.” Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman echoed those sentiments, writing on Facebook: “You were our true friend and an example of a principled politician. Ukraine will miss you.”
In Russia, of course, there was a very different reaction. The state TV channel Rossiya 1 called Sen. McCain “the chief symbol of Russophobia.” Not surprising, since RT (formerly Russia Today) in September 2017 had listed the senator as No. 1 on its list of top 10 Kremlin critics, called him “a lifelong Russophobe” and said he’d earned its “lifetime achievement award for services to Russophobia.”
Perhaps that’s because, as Vladimir Kara-Murza reminded us in The Washington Post on August 27, Sen. McCain early on took the measure of Vladimir Putin. The headline to his commentary said it well: “John McCain saw through Vladimir Putin better than anyone.” In 2000, the senator, then a candidate for the Republican nomination for president, saw the impending danger of Mr. Putin’s leadership: “We know that he was an apparatchik. We know that he was a member of the KGB. We know that he came to power because of the military brutality… in Chechnya.” In 2008, during a presidential debate with Sen. Barack Obama (D- Ill.), Sen. McCain uttered these memorable words: “I looked into his eyes and saw three letters, a K, a G and a B.” He added that Mr. Putin “has gradually repressed most of the liberties that we would expect for nations to observe, and he has exhibited most aggressive behavior… in Georgia. I said before, watch Ukraine. Ukraine, right now, is in the sights of Vladimir Putin.” Mr. Kara-Murza, vice-chairman of the Open Russia movement and chairman of the Boris Nemtsov Foundation for Freedom, commented: “Much has and will be written about McCain’s military courage, his patriotism, his famed bipartisanship and his unimpeachable personal decency. His long-standing position on Russia deserves a special tribute.”
Sen. McCain’s foresight and knowledge will be sorely missed. Rest in peace, dear friend of Ukraine. As we often say at this time of war in Ukraine: Heroes do not die.