My father, a Soviet-born Ukrainian army officer, succumbed to brain cancer 24 years ago at an impossibly young age. A medical report produced by the Ukrainian Armed Forces in January 1996 cites his longstanding occupational exposure to ionizing radiation and indeed he had been involved in nuclear weapons handling and maintenance. In May 1996, two years before his death, the last of Ukraine’s nuclear arms was brought to Russia as part of the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, by which the newly established republic chose nuclear disarmament in exchange for security assurances from the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia.
Ukraine’s decision to give up what was the world’s third-largest nuclear arsenal remains controversial, especially among its own population. Russia invaded its neighbor in 2014 following the success of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity. At the time, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country to protest its pro-Russian President’s refusal to sign a consequential association agreement with the European Union (EU), shattering hopes for a better, democratic future. Kyivans from all walks of life braved government-sanctioned violence and bullets, as photographs of their democracy’s baptism by fire at the country’s main independence square flew across the world. More than 100 protesters lost their lives.
Before Ukrainians finally ousted the President, they died not just under their own flag, but also under that of the EU. At its core, Ukraine’s revolution was about dignity and freedom. After illegally and illegitimately annexing Crimea only weeks later, Russia began sponsoring its proxies in the now-occupied territories of eastern Ukraine. The fighting has never stopped, claiming the lives of 79 Ukrainian military personnel in 2021 alone. The wall of St. Michael’s Cathedral in Ukraine’s capital, only meters from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, has become Ukraine‘s Wall of Remembrance, with pictures of thousands of Ukrainian servicemen and women who paid the ultimate price in this undeclared war. Here, foreign dignitaries pay their respects to Ukraine’s fallen, killed while defending their country and their democracy against a signatory of the Budapest Memorandum.
Born in Ukraine, I was raised and educated elsewhere. After moving to Germany in 2005 at the age of 12, I grew up in an idyllic Bavarian town. Perfecting my German while being a model citizen were obvious priorities that would help me build the life my mother felt it would be hard to give me back in Ukraine. That same year Vladimir Putin discarded Russia’s international promises to invade its smaller neighbor, I took an oath of loyalty to the German Constitution, whose very first article starts with the following words: “Human dignity shall be inviolable.” Those words are ingrained in the German psyche for a reason, and they are certainly part of mine. It is my German education that taught me about our historic responsibility against the background of a violent totalitarian past. It is exactly why, as a German originally from Ukraine, this feeling of responsibility has been overwhelming since Russia invaded Ukraine.
Russia’s president seeks to punish Ukrainians for daring to choose freedom over oppression. His essay, published in July 2021 and titled “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians”, seeks to rewrite history and negates the right of Ukrainians to their own state, denying them their agency and dignity as a separate people. Germany taught me that human dignity and freedom can never be subjects to compromise.
In 2022, Ukrainians are waking up to a flurry of proof that their country is surrounded by Russian troops. Foreign commentators discuss possible invasion scenarios and estimate the levels of physical destruction and humanitarian disaster should diplomacy fail. The US, UK, and other partners have embarked on a last-minute campaign to deliver much-needed defensive equipment and weaponry, aiming to increase the costs of further invasion for Russia. Other partners continue to debate the merit of such support, fearing that delivering weapons to Ukraine to help it defend itself may provoke further escalation.
Ukrainians have made clear they will defend their country and their freedom. The desire to invest in their future and strengthen their young and lively democracy has grown even as fighting against the Russian-backed armed formations has continued for eight years in the east. Surrounded though they are, and without any defensive alliance to help, Ukrainians are nonetheless fighting for others like the bloodied and increasingly persecuted democratic oppositions in Belarus and Russia. As a bulwark against this illiberal advance, Ukraine has become the democratic frontline and we are obliged to support it. Having fought colonialism and oppression for centuries, in 1991 Ukraine finally gained its independence. Today, Ukrainians do not ask us to fight for them, they are ready to do it themselves. As they dig in once again, preparing to face an overwhelming force, they must not stand alone.
Watching this crisis unfold, I often wonder what my father would say. My family still often recalls his strong sense of justice. A Russian speaker from Dnipro in the heart of Ukraine, he graduated from the Lviv National Ground Forces Academy in Western Ukraine, where he became fluent in Ukrainian. As a young officer in the Soviet army, he almost volunteered to join the Soviet Union’s Afghanistan campaign, sincerely believing he could somehow help the Afghan people, despite the brutality of war. Instead, he quickly became disillusioned with the system he was part of and, luckily, changed his mind. As a result, he went to great lengths to move away from political work in the force to which he was originally assigned, although he ended up in the nuclear silos as his next best alternative. He died at the age of 33 because of an inhumane system that was designed to subdue whole peoples, disregarding the value of human life. Born into the system, he tried to navigate it the best he could, yet its far-reaching consequences would not spare him even after its collapse.
Vladimir Putin described the collapse of the Soviet Union as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century. Ukrainians disagree, striving to join the Euro-Atlantic family of free nations instead. Almost 30 years ago, Ukraine rightly chose to give up its deadly arsenal, previously meant to destroy millions of lives on the opposite side of the Iron Curtain, in defense of a false ideology incompatible with human dignity. Unfortunately for my father, that decision came too late.
Today, once again, we have no time to spare in defense of democracy, which is the cornerstone of our societies. Now more than ever, it is our duty to support Ukraine’s freedom.
Dmitriy Miryan works at the Operations Division of the NATO International Staff, NATO HQ, in Brussels.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).