History is damning when it repeats itself.
Dec. 11, 2013, I landed in Kyiv, Ukraine, in the midst of the Euromaidan Revolution. My work with Ukraine started eighteen months prior, as I worked with local and oblast (provincial) governments to support its post-Soviet transformation. This included working with state and locally elected officials to transition from a centralized political and economic system to a decentralized governance structure, much like Canada’s federation of provinces, and support the development of an open market economy.
What was meant to be a quick trip to wrap up some projects before the holidays unintentionally evolved into witnessing and participating in nationwide Maidan activities that shaped the next eight years of my work and life, and the politics of war and peace in Ukraine.
Revolution of dignity
We cannot talk about what’s happening in Ukraine today without remembering the Maidan. Euromaidan, or the “revolution of dignity” as it is commonly called, was when Russia lost Ukraine. And, as Ukrainian playwright and author Mikhail Bulgokov said, “A fact is the most stubborn thing in the world.”
For hundreds of years the Russian Empire had tried to colonize and take Ukraine by military force. Like most European nations prior to World War 1, Ukraine’s territorial borders had shifted over time as empires rose to power, expanded and fell. Between the 12th and 18th centuries, parts of Ukraine had been colonized by the Mongol, the Austro-Hungarian Empires, as well as the Lithuanian, Polish and Russian Empires. While its boundaries ebbed and flowed with the political and military tides, Ukraine managed to preserve its language, literature, culture and sovereignty. It managed to survive several wars and revolutions.
Maidan was different. Ukrainians did not just survive – they conquered. When then President Viktor Yanukovych dismissed the European Union membership proposal in November 2013 in favour of closer economic and political ties to Russia, citizens took to the streets. They were tired of economic turmoil, corruption and autocracy that ongoing political and economic relations with Russia festered. And they succeeded. After three months of protest the president resigned, a new government was formed, and Ukrainians understood the meaning and value of democracy and self-determination.
Russia had lost Ukraine. Through their resistance to Russia’s autocracy, the citizens of Ukraine had cemented the process of democracy and economic reformation, and celebrated the collapse of the Soviet Union. The EU has proven to be an agent and sustainer of regime change and Ukrainians were ready to cut its Russian/Soviet ties and join. In retaliation, in March 2014, Russia swiftly annexed Crimea, a vibrant economic hub, and began a hybrid war in eastern parts of Ukraine.
Since 2014, Russia has used this war to stall Ukraine’s economic and democratic growth. Rather than becoming demoralized, Ukrainians continued to transform their society to an open, democratic, market-based economy. This is what Russia is warring against today: democracy, rule of law and decentralized economies.
Support from the West
Since 2014, Western and European nations have used diplomatic tools to support Ukraine. These included large investments in development projects through international aid, military training and equipment, and trade agreements. For my part, with funding from the Canadian federal government, I worked with 28 cities across Ukraine to support democracy and economic development at the municipal level, while working with oblast (provincial) governments on significant policies affecting trade and investment. I also worked with non-government organizations to promote a healthy and engaged civil society.
By and large, these investments worked. This is not surprising given that since the end of the second world war, Canada and America have intervened repeatedly to promote democratic processes. For example, over the past two decades, the U.S. played important roles in bringing democracy to Taiwan, South Korea and the Balkans. Membership in the European Union helped consolidate democracy in Spain, Portugal and Greece, as they emerged from authoritarian regimes.
Ukrainians are now looking to Western and European democracies to offer more than subtle diplomatic tools and financial support: they need significant sanctions and military intervention. Western and European democracies engaging in trade agreements with Russia need to rethink the intrinsic value of that trade: when foreign trade policy enables bloodshed, we diminish our democratic and economic systems that allow us to thrive. We must choose what we value and defend those values.
Choice is the most powerful thing in the world. Choice is the foundation of democracy and of market economies. On Dec. 22, 2013, I chose to stand with close to 500,000 people at a Maidan rally in Kyiv. When I stood, I realized that when you have choice, you have freedom. Then, Ukrainians were defending their right to choose, and in doing so they were simultaneously choosing and confirming freedom. I also recognized myself in that moment making a choice. I have had opinions about the political climate but took no action — the safe choice when you work in international relations — but as Graham Greene intoned, even an opinion is a kind of action. So, I chose to stand.
Now, Ukrainians stand again. Except this time, much more is at stake. This time, a 3,000-kilometre border is surrounded by tanks with estimates of up to 190,000 Russian soldiers surrounding their nation.
Canada, the U.S. and the EU now have a choice: enabling bloodshed (in favour of what?); Or intervening to preserve a nation’s sovereignty, its citizens’ lives, and a political and economic system. Russia’s latest attack and subsequent response from citizens, who are ready to take up arms, have only confirmed Ukrainian’s steadfast commitment to Western values.
The citizens bravely hold their ground. Will we stand with them?
Kadie Ward, BA’05, MA’07, is a Western alum and an international economic development expert who has worked with more than 100 cities from 30 countries to support inclusive economic growth in transition economies. She lived and worked in Ukraine from 2012 to 2019. She is currently commissioner and chief administrative officer for the Ontario government’s Pay Equity Commission.