This year, Ukrainians and our friends throughout the world will commemorate the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s renewed independence and the fulfillment of the visionary words of our legendary prophet Taras Shevchenko who, in 1845, wrote in “The Great Vault” (Velykyi lokh):
And from beneath Ukraine will rise.
It will dispel the gloom of bondage,
It will light the world of truth,
And prayers will be said in freedom
By children once unfree!
Thirty years ago, countless, hopeful offerings of prayers were answered, the courageous David against Goliath struggle of Ukrainian freedom fighters was won, and tremendous sacrifices of generations of Ukrainians were rewarded, as Ukrainians received God’s greatest gift for a nation when the following words of the Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine resonated in the Ukrainian parliament on August 24, 1991:
The Verkhovna Rada … solemnly declares the Independence of Ukraine and the creation of an independent Ukrainian state – Ukraine.
The territory of Ukraine is indivisible and inviolable.
From this day forward, only the Constitution and laws of Ukraine are valid on the territory of Ukraine.
This declaration of Ukraine’s renewed independence is unquestionably one of the most important and defining geopolitical events of the 20th century.
Indeed, when Ukraine declared – once again, and once and for all – its renewed independence, it propelled everyone into a new geopolitical era, caused the collapse of what former U.S. President Ronald Reagan correctly coined as an “evil empire,” and allowed the Ukrainian people to emerge from colonialism and enter the enviable circle of free peoples of the world.
To better understand and fully appreciate the magnitude of this event, it is necessary to comprehend the suffocating yoke of which Ukraine was finally able to rid itself.
Ukraine had suffered three centuries of merciless Russian domination and exploitation, including more than 70 years of indescribable communist terror, which in the 20th century alone included:
• the Holodomor that took millions of Ukrainian lives and is now being recognized by the international community for what it actually was – one of the worst genocides in human history;
• the banning of religion, confiscation of church property and systemic persecution and killing of the hierarchy, clergy and laity of Ukrainian churches and faith communities that forced worshippers into catacombs similar to the days of the evil Roman emperor Nero;
• the brutal repression and execution of Ukraine’s prominent figures in science, literature, culture and art, including during a period known as the Executed Renaissance (Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia);
• the ruthless Russification and destruction of any resistance to the Soviet empire, or the manifestation of any form of Ukrainian independence, resulting in the forced imprisonment of countless millions of Ukrainians in Soviet Gulag torturous death camps;
• the loss of millions of Ukrainian lives at the hands of the Red Army and the Nazis during World War II; and
• the Chornobyl disaster that was an extension of a policy of careless and insatiable plundering of Ukrainian resources by the Kremlin and its subsequent cover up of that nuclear explosion (namely by still holding – five days later – the May 1 parade in Kyiv under the radioactive sky of Ukraine’s capital a mere 90 kilometers away from the nuclear disaster, thereby endangering the lives of innocent people, including youth and children).
Only against such a backdrop can one begin to appreciate the enormous significance of the long-awaited declaration of Ukraine’s renewed independence on August 24, 1991.
In this light, Ukrainians should be individually, collectively and eternally grateful to the Almighty for having unchained the shackles of the Soviet empire and satisfied the fervent aspirations of the Ukrainian people for freedom.
Ukrainian freedom fighters who paved the way to Ukraine’s renewed independence, and all those who are currently bravely defending Ukraine’s territorial integrity against Russia’s military aggression must also be honoured as Ukraine’s national heroes.
By regaining Ukraine’s independence, the Ukrainian people took control of both their land and destiny.
The Ukrainian diaspora contributed to this great success story by actively supporting the Ukrainian nation and its freedom fighters. The Ukrainian diaspora has also benefited from the declaration of Ukraine’s renewed independence since the West now recognizes that Ukrainians in the diaspora have their roots in a country called Ukraine, and not in some unknown territory forming part of the Austro-Hungarian, Polish, Romanian or Soviet states.
The restoration of Ukraine’s independence in 1991 was also the last nail in the coffin of one of the most brutal empires in the world, forcing the dissolution of the Soviet Union into 15 independent states. Thus, Ukraine’s independence ensured the liberation of many other enslaved peoples of the former Soviet Union.
In his book “Strategic Vision: America and the Crisis of Global Power,” Zbigniew Brzezinski, the well-known U.S. foreign policy intellectual who served as President Jimmy Carter’s National Security Adviser, as well as foreign affairs adviser to several other U.S. Presidents, wrote: “It cannot be stressed enough that without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be an empire, but with Ukraine suborned and then subordinated, Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
In that sense, Ukraine’s independence removed the constant threat emanating from the Russian empire and rendered the world a much safer place in which to live.
Russia recognized Ukraine’s independence in name only, but never accepted the resulting geopolitical reality.
Indeed, Vladimir Putin, Russia’s modern-day kleptocratic tsar with imperialistic ambitions, has openly lamented that the break-up of the Soviet Union was “the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century” and he remains determined to restore its so-called glory.
That is precisely why Russia invaded Crimea in February 2014 and, shortly thereafter, parts of eastern Ukraine. Since then, Russia has waged an incessant and vicious hybrid war against Ukraine with the clear aim to regain control over it. This blatant military aggression has already destroyed with total disdain both people and property alike. Over the last seven years of Russia’s aggression, over 14,000 individuals have been killed and more than 30,000 injured (including Ukrainian civilians and military) in the occupied Donetsk and Luhansk regions alone, and there are currently over 1.5 million internally displaced persons in Ukraine.
This military aggression targets not only Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions. The ultimate target is the whole of Ukraine since Mr. Putin fully understands Mr. Brzezinski’s geopolitical assessment that with a subordinated Ukraine “Russia automatically becomes an empire.”
Sadly, although the West is supportive of Ukraine and condemns Russia’s blatant violations of the world order, Western leaders are still quite oblivious to the fact that Mr. Putin’s agenda goes far beyond Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, and targets Ukraine’s independence in order to recreate a new and menacing Russian empire.
It is noteworthy that, just as Ukraine’s independence in 1991 abolished an “evil empire” and ensured the emergence of 14 additional independent states, Mr. Putin’s current efforts to restore that same empire by conquering Ukraine will put at tremendous risk peace, security and stability in the whole world.
For this reason, the international community should not only participate in this year’s commemoration of the 30th anniversary of Ukraine’s independence, but also actively help Ukraine fully regain and defend its territorial integrity. This should be done not only for the sake of Ukraine but also for the sake of the international community. Ukraine’s independence and full membership in the European Union and NATO are Europe’s best hope for security and stability against Russia’s hybrid aggression aimed at the West.
To help Ukraine fully regain and defend its territorial integrity, Western leaders should take effective actions to ensure that, first, NATO grants Ukraine the NATO Membership Action Plan; second, the Kremlin’s Nord Stream 2 project is cancelled; and, third, Russia is banned from SWIFT, if it does not de-occupy Ukraine within a fixed period of time as defined by the West.
Such decisive actions will help Ukraine ensure that all Ukrainians (including those who reside in the temporarily occupied territories in Crimea and the Donetsk and Luhansk regions) can fully celebrate future anniversaries of Ukraine’s renewed independence.
Such actions will also ensure that we all live in a more prosperous and safer world, where all people and nations have a significantly better chance of enjoying the fundamental freedoms enshrined in the UN Charter.
Slava Ukraini! Heroiam slava!
Eugene Czolij is the president of the non-governmental organization Ukraine-2050, honorary consul of Ukraine in Montreal and was the president of the Ukrainian World Congress from 2008 to 2018.
This Op-ed was originally published by The Ukrainian Quarterly. It is republished with permission.