Our Voices

Kerry Kennedy and Kateryna Yushchenko: An appeal to Ukrainian Americans: Speak truth to power

For many Americans, the situation in Ukraine may seem as distant as memories of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

But the threat of a Cold War knocks at our doors once again, bringing reminders of our childhoods in the 1960s, when schools across the country practiced duck and cover drills and families contemplated building fallout shelters.

We knew then, as little girls growing up in Washington and Chicago, respectively, of our country’s duty to fight for freedom and decency and justice not only here but abroad.

“Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and the success of liberty,” President John F. Kennedy said in his inaugural address.

Once again, it is time.

As human rights activists, we have over the years formed a deep friendship, our bond strengthened over shared work to educate students about speaking truth to the world’s power and providing them with the tools to create a better, more peaceful world.

And so we feel that with this authority, combined with our up-close vantage points from political families in both the east and west, we must urge Americans, particularly the more than 50,000 Ukrainian Americans who call the Chicago area home, to be the messengers in disseminating the whole story.

This crisis isn’t simply about Ukraine, it’s also about who we are and where we stand both in the world and within our own countries.

Ukrainians understand the importance of complexities at their very core, ones on full display in their multifaceted and multilayered folk customs. These are not only celebrations of heritage, but vital tools for defining and maintaining the country’s cultural distinctiveness in the face of strong assimilatory pressures from neighbors.

So, too, Ukrainians know that their homeland is not simply a toy being tugged at by two willful children.

Instead, it is a free country that made a choice to be an independent democracy, one striving to be part of international organizations that reflect its democratic values.

The situation is, in a way, the inverse of Poland’s Solidarity labor movement, credited with helping spark the domino-like collapse of the Soviet Union. Here, if Ukraine’s democracy falls to Russia, all other new democracies find themselves in grave danger.

For many years now, we have known the Kremlin will stop at nothing to achieve its goals, evidenced in the horrific dioxin poisoning of Viktor Yushchenko when he was running against the Kremlin-preferred candidate.

During Yushchenko’s presidency, the nation began to encounter a tactic that only now we are beginning to fully understand — something most commonly referred to as hybrid warfare.

Disinformation, terror threats and cyberattacks have all been employed by the Kremlin for more than a decade against Ukraine because it was and remains deeply afraid of things that have begun to take root there.

Democracy is not only a threat to the oligarchs who have money and political clout. The Kremlin fears that Ukraine’s success will inspire more Russian people to demand freedom and democracy for themselves.

Russia has made targeted attacks across Ukraine, a horrific action that we condemn. It is past time for the rest of the world to wake up. It must commit to doing more. More than it did when Putin invaded Georgia in 2008. More than in response to his 2014 illegal occupation of Crimea and of eastern Ukraine.

This time, the west must be prepared with a multifaceted plan to offer Ukrainians support, to assure the “survival and success of liberty.”

This includes encouraging and supporting Ukraine’s greatest asset — its human rights and civic space activists and journalists targeted by Putin. Across history, the resilience of civil society has been the key driver of not only reform but independence and commitment to human rights.

The United States and the international community must also actively work in helping the world to see Ukraine’s extraordinary people for who they are, brave souls committed to democracy.

Doing less indicates we’re on Putin’s side — the side of repression, disinformation and wholesale slaughter.

As they say in Ukraine, Під лежачий камінь вода не тече — “Under the lying stone, water does not flow.”

Kateryna Yushchenko, born in Chicago, was first lady of Ukraine from 2005-2010. She chairs Ukraine 3000 International Foundation. Kerry Kennedy is a human rights lawyer and president of Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights.

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