HOPE AND OPTIMISM FOR UKRAINE
It’s been almost three years since the beginning of my year-long deployment to Ukraine on OPERATION UNIFIER and eight years since the conclusion of Euromaidan and beginning of Russia’s war on Ukraine. While I kept a personal journal consisting of countless of anecdotes from my experience, I never took the time to weave some these stories into a broader narrative shared publicly. Now, however, I feel is a more important time than ever to do so.
We all know that the situation in Ukraine right now is incredibly tense with the build-up of over 100 000 Russian troops around Ukraine’s border. Many of us fear the worst: a full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia. We know what this would mean not only for our loved ones in Ukraine, but also for the security of Europe and the rules-based international order established after WWII. But this article isn’t about war, Russia’s intentions, weapon deliveries or sanctions – there are plenty of talented journalists already covering and sharing these incredibly important stories.
Today, I want to shift our paradigm on Ukraine – even if for just a moment – from a country stuck at the axis between east and west to one of hope. Having recently worked in the country for an entire year in a military capacity, I witnessed some remarkable shifts and wanted to take an opportunity to recognize truly how far Ukraine has come in such a short amount of time. Despite the fear and uncertainty of what’s to come in the short-term, there’s lots to be optimistic about the future of Ukraine and its young and fledgling democracy.
The vision of Euromaidan continues in various ways
Newton’s third law states that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and I believe this to be true in areas outside of traditional physics. In-spite of so much destruction and suffering through the war in Donbass, since 2014 there’s been wave of new cultural movements and organizations, which continue to carry through the vision of Euromaidan in various ways. The demonstrations in downtown Kyiv may be over but the momentum from them carry on.
Once such example is Plast Ukrainian Scouting Organization. Since the war broke out in 2014, Plast in Ukraine has grown rapidly. Plast branches (stanytsyas) are starting to pop-up all over entire country, particularly in eastern Ukraine where Plast historically had little presence. I’ve personally met new Plast-scouts from annexed-Crimea and even Avdiivka, one of the hardest hit cities in the Donbass. The Ukrainian Leadership Academy (ULA), which I had the privilege of forming a partnership together with the Canadian Armed Forces (CAF), is another ground-breaking NGO created out of the Euromaidan movement. ULA aims to develop the next generation of leaders in Ukraine through physical, emotional, social, and intellectual youth development. Each interaction my colleagues and I had with ULA students in both Kyiv and Mykolaiv, left me a lasting impression of hope and optimism that Ukraine’s future is in incredible hands. Ukraine is a country of enormous potential, and I’m confident that many of us will see it realized in our lifetime because of organizations like Plast, ULA and many others like them.
Above: Meeting with the students of the Ukrainian Leadership Academy in Mykolaiv. These are the future leaders of Ukraine and that fills me with great optimism.
Over the course of my one-year deployment in Ukraine, I had the privilege of meeting Ukrainians (both civilian and military) from almost every single oblast and region in Ukraine. I spent four months stationed in Mykolaiv, a city in southern Ukraine where Russian is the dominant language spoken and political pro-Russian sentiment was historically very prevalent. What I witnessed however, was that this too was changing. From restaurants, gyms, even the post office - people would often thank me for speaking Ukrainian in a historically Russian-speaking city. On May 16, National Vyshyvanka (Traditional Ukrainian Embroidered Shirt) Day, I vividly recall thousands of Mykolaivtsi pouring into downtown wearing their Ukrainian Vyshyvankkas with pride. I mention these first-hand experiences, because these moments didn’t occur where you’d expect them to – cities like Ternopil, L’viv or Ivano-Frankivsk – but rather in the former ship-building capital of the entire USSR. Some of the most pro-Ukrainian people I met during my time in Ukraine, were from places like Donetsk and Luhansk, perhaps because they understand better than anyone the destructive consequences of Russia’s war on Ukraine.
I’ve made the mistake of limiting my countless trips to Ukraine to Kyiv and L’viv and maybe few places in between. It wasn’t until I traveled to places in Ukraine I wouldn’t have otherwise, did I realize how much of the story I was missing out on. Next time you plan a trip to Ukraine add in a stop to Zaporizhia, Kharkiv, Mariupol or any other place you may have never otherwise ventured off to. Talk to the people there and understand what they are about. Not only will you be pleasantly surprised about what you might learn, it’ll give you a deeper understanding of what it means to be Ukrainian. Make no mistake, there are regional and cultural differences across the country – that’s to be expected. We wouldn’t expect someone in Victoria, BC to have the same views as someone in Winnipeg, MB, or Quebec City, QC and we shouldn’t expect the same in Ukraine. Places like Simferopol, Luhansk and Donetsk are just as important to Ukraine as any other Ukrainian city or village. Most of us understand how important this unitedness within Ukraine truly is but for those that do not, know that these divisions plays perfectly into the aggressor’s narrative.
Above: Every day on the way to work, I drove by this graffitied apartment building where ‘Za Rus!’ (For Russia!) was painted over a Ukrainian Flag. As I approached the building, I noticed someone had already fixed the graffiti by adding in the word ‘Kyivan’ on the flag effectively changing it from “For Russia” to “For Kyivan Rus”. For those who don’t know, Kyivan-Rus is considered by many as the birthplace of Ukraine. Thank-you to all Mykolaivtsi who continue to advocate for a free and independent Ukraine.
The Ukrainian military reflects change at an unprecedented level
It’s difficult to truly grasp how much the Ukrainian Armed Forces (UAF) have changed in such a short amount of time. My first boss on OPERATION UNIFIER was Sgt. Renaud, a member of the Royal 22nd Regiment of Quebec. Sgt. Renaud had served over twenty years in the CAF and had completed seven tours of duty, including three to Afghanistan. In short, he had seen it all by the time he retired from service in 2020. Roto 7 in 2019 was Sgt. Renaud’s second deployment on OPERATION UNIFIER, the first being ROTO 1 in 2016. It was always fascinating to listen to his perspective of the changes he had witnessed between his two deployments. From conducting weapons handling classes for high-ranking officers to low-troop morale, Roto 1 offered a raw insight into what it was like for the Ukrainian military when the war first broke out in 2014. However, in 2019, just three years later from his first rotation, Sgt. Renaud said the capabilities and improvements he’d noticed throughout the UAF were like day and night. Even in the words of our own Canadian commanders, the UAF today is ‘unrecognizable’ to what it once was.
Above: At the Basic Leadership Course (BLC) graduation at the 202 NCO Training Center in Vasylkiv, Ukraine, where Canadians were mentoring. These are Ukraine’s newest sergeants, the backbone of any professional military.
Change can usually be a seemingly slow and uncomfortable process, particularly when reforming an organization over 250 000+ members who are simultaneously fighting a war. Take a step back from the day-to-day challenges, and the UAF and its partners have plenty to be proud about. What struck me the most however, wasn’t the reforms themselves – rather the humility demonstrated by all members of UAF – which has led to it. Despite many of us NATO-advisors/mentors having barely a fraction (if any) of the recent hybrid warfare combat experience many of the Ukrainians soldiers we were advising had – they still were all ears anytime we had any feedback or advice. Members of the UAF -- just like Ukrainians at large – are some of the most resilient people around. Indeed, they endure many hardships that many western militaries do not, but we must remember that these are Ukrainian political challenges, which by extension become military challenges. Believe me when I say that UAF are making the best with what they have, remaining incredible disciplined, cohesive, and motivated. Things are getting better. I often said that we had just as much to learn from them than they did from us, a statement I believe to be even more true today. To all Ukrainians near and far, be proud of your military, they truly are the best of the best. I’ve seen the value in being shoulder to shoulder with the UAF and helping them navigate through the complexities and challenges of military reform, both at the collective and individual-training level. As Woody Allen famously once said, “half of the battle is just showing up”, and the west needs to continue to show up for Ukraine, now and in the future.
Above: Standing next to Andriy Oprysko (right), one of the twenty-four Ukrainian sailors who was captured by Russia during the Kerch Strait Incident in November 2018 and illegally detained for over one year. He was released in December 2019.
One day there will be clear skies in Ukraine
It was one of the most impactful moments of my entire life, and it happened within two-weeks of my arrival in Ukraine during Easter 2019. Our military chaplain, Capt. Brosseau had been invited by Bishop Sus (at the time Fr. Sus) to commemorate the fallen at L’viv’s historic Lychakiv Cemetery. He needed a uniformed linguist, which as fate would have it, ended up being me. Bishop Sus and the Padre together would commemorate the fallen heroes by blessing their graves and thanking their families for their sacrifices. It was my job to support them in translating their prayers, words of condolences and gratitude.
Walking from grave to grave, I learned about these incredible heroes who gave the ultimate sacrifice for Ukraine. I met a mother at the grave of her son, whose husband had joined the military in his late son’s name and was away fighting in the war. I met a young baby, no more than one year old, who was adopted in the name of their brother who had perished. I met the family of a man, who mere days before succumbing to his injuries sustained in the Donbass, made the decision to get baptized. I met the family of two cousins who perished while trying to save a fellow injured servicemember. These heartbreaking stories continued as we walked from grave to grave, shaking me to my core. Finally, we approached the dedicated Plast section of Lychakiv cemetery. Buried there was Viktor Gurniak, who just last year was posthumously awarded a National Hero of Ukraine, the highest national title that can be conferred upon an individual citizen by the President of Ukraine. Speaking to his family, I learned more about the brave and courageous person Viktor was. I vividly remember his brother reciting a poem he had written for Viktor, which was one of the most beautiful things I had ever heard. Viktor is one of several Plast scouts who had served and sacrificed in the war in Donbass. While I had never met Viktor personally, our connection through Plast made it feel like I already knew the type of person he was. And it was through this shared connection, did the consequences of war go from something I read about online or on TV, to something much more real and personal. I will forever be grateful for the opportunity to have shared that moment with Viktor’s family and for their sacrifice.
Above: At the gravesite of Viktor Gurniak, National Hero of Ukraine, at L’viv’s historic Lychakiv Cemetery. This moment was one of the most impactful moments of my life and I’m honoured to have met his family and share this moment with them.
There are distinct moments in each of our lives, where you know it is where you belong. For me, this was one such moment. Some may chalk up these moments as blink luck or “being in the right place at the right time”, but I think it’s much more than that and that everything happens for a reason. You may sometimes feel that whatever the future holds in Ukraine, may make you anxious and nervous. Know that this is normal. Despite the very real threat posing Ukraine today, I urge everyone to remain level-headed, not to panic and continue sharing the story of what’s happening. I’ve met some of the most impressive and inspiring people during my time there and can assure you all that one day there will be clear skies in Ukraine.
Above: At the International Peacekeeping and Security Centre near L'viv, Ukraine. One day there will be clear skies in Ukraine.
About Andriy Tovstiuk
Andriy Tovstiuk, MBA, is a global digital marketer, Ukrainian-Canadian and veteran. An active member of the Ukrainian Canadian community, he has been lifetime member of Plast Ukrainian Scouts and is currently a visiting lecturer at L’viv Business School of UCU. He served in the Canadian Armed Forces for five years as an Intelligence Operator and deployed on two rotations of OPERATION UNIFIER as a Linguist in Ukraine from 2019-2020. While he considers Canada home, Andriy has lived in India, the United States, Singapore, and Ukraine, and is always planning his next adventure!