We are all Ukrainians now
Ukrainians demonstrate outside Downing Street against the recent invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022 in London, England. Overnight, Russia began a large-scale attack on Ukraine, with explosions reported in multiple cities and far outside the restive eastern regions held by Russian-backed rebels. European governments reacted with widespread condemnation and vows of more sanctions. (Photo by Jeff J. Mitchell/Getty Images)
In January 1997, after negotiations beginning in 1995, my wife and I moved to Kyiv, Ukraine. As the U.S. Department of the Treasury’s senior budget policy advisor to the Ukrainian Ministry of Finance, I was one of two Western advisors (the other was the IMF representative to Ukraine) in the Ukrainian Cabinet of Ministers building. The building’s security detail was not happy about having us there, with a lot of prejudices and distrust lingering from Soviet Union days.
During the two years, with my assistance and that of a Latvian colleague, Ukraine developed the beginnings of a national budget system suitable for a modern country with democratic institutions and a growing private sector economy. I continued to work with Ukraine until late 2007 when Victor Yanukovych, a Russian stooge, took power and Western views were no longer wanted.
Yes, there was a lot of corruption during this period, known as the “Wild, Wild East,” characterized by the privatization of formerly state (socialist) economies in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.
I was asked once by a Reuters reporter when I thought Ukraine might begin to look like a normal democracy. I told her, “Perhaps when the country’s leadership is mostly under forty.”
That has been coming to pass in recent years, slowly but steadily, with hopeful signs.
Back in the States, I was asked what I thought of the Ukrainian people. That was easy to answer: some are fine people but you may not share the same interests, a few will be friends for life, and some you hope never to see again as long as you live – they are just like everyone else. They wanted a free country after the domination and persecution they suffered under the Soviet Union. They wanted good jobs, educational opportunities, and the chance to raise a family in an open society characterized by peace and possibility.
All that is gone now.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine, plain and simple, was to make sure that Ukraine could not function as a successful, independent democracy. It was to re-subjugate an independent country to the distorted views of a maniacal dictator. This is the unthinkable horror being perpetrated on the Ukrainian state. Think of the Nazi and Soviet dismemberment of Poland in 1939 if you want an analogy.
What is problematic for the world at large is that this ends the reasonably stable world order that has existed for 75 years. Russia is now, by its actions, a self-declared pariah state and its leader a war criminal. By the violation of international law, the UN charter, and any sense of decency, it has abrogated its right to operate freely as a part of the international order.
How the world will punish and isolate Russia, in addition to helping Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, will dominate the world in coming months and perhaps years. If China fails to more forcefully condemn Russia’s unprovoked invasion of an independent country, then we may see a new cold war with major dictatorships on one side and democracies on the other. We have read about this before, but only in dystopian science fiction novels.
Do not treat this possibility as hyperbole. The existential effect of destabilizing the world order may take a while for Americans to grasp, involved as they are in their everyday lives – getting kids off to school, managing one or more jobs to make ends meet, and coping with COVID and routine challenges.
But affect their lives it will because Ukraine stands for everything our country values, despite its warts and failings — freedom, democracy, a safe place to raise a family, respect for the individual, and the opportunity to grow. If an amoral, unhinged dictator can destroy democracy there, it can happen in other places. If it can happen there, it can happen here. This is a good time to embrace and protect our democracy and support democracy abroad. Right now, we are all Ukrainians.
David Darby served as senior budget advisor to the Government of Ukraine for the U.S. Department of the Treasury (1997-98) and USAID (2006-07), in addition to working with a dozen other countries in the region (1998-2003) as U.S. Treasury’s Regional Advisor for the CEE and FSU. He is a former Montana State Budget Director and has an academic background in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union.
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