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January 18, 2022


CG Ken Toko
CG Ken Toko

After a year and a half in Mitteldeutschland, I’ve really grown to love this region. It’s become like a second home, and I wish more Americans knew about everything this area has to offer – culture, history, economic potential, and most of all, wonderful people. My job is just as much about explaining Mitteldeutschland to Americans as it is about explaining America to people here. And that is why it pains me when I hear all the one-sided criticism of the United States from regional voices, most recently with regards to Russia, especially when those complaints are based not on fact, but rather on misinformation, speculation, or something worse. So please allow me to clarify a few facts.

First, the United States is a complex country composed of people of diverse backgrounds. We acknowledge and are transparent about the many challenges we face, including the divisions in society that culminated in last year’s attack on the Capitol. But no matter our political or ideological differences, Americans are united in our belief in the fundamental principle of freedom—a belief that extends to our support for Ukraine.

When I lived in Ukraine from 2014 to 2017, shortly after the Maidan Revolution, I was amazed by the palpable enthusiasm, hope, and excitement on the streets of Kyiv as Ukrainians of all generations, especially the younger generation, looked to a bright, new future for their country. While that future has not yet fully arrived, it’s up to the Ukrainians to decide how to shape their own future. It’s not up to America, Russia, Germany, or any other country. But a bright future is difficult to achieve when you have 100,000 foreign troops with unclear intentions amassed on your border.

Russia claims to only be “exercising” its troops on its own territory with no intention to re-invade Ukraine. But no one, except Mr. Putin himself, knows Russia’s true intentions. The only thing we know for certain is that there are about 100,000 Russian troops currently present on Ukraine’s border, with no clear explanation for their presence and no transparency. We also know that Russia continues to occupy Ukraine’s sovereign territory (Crimea) and has fueled the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has already claimed 14,000 lives. Now ask yourself this: if you were a country eager for a brighter future, struggling for survival, but just had a large chunk of your land taken over by a much larger neighbor and its proxies, how would you feel about that same neighbor placing a huge force along your border? These are the facts on the ground.

The argument I often hear in conversations in Mitteldeutschland is that Russia is justified in its actions because NATO is threatening Russia and promised not to expand further to the east. Fact: NATO is a defensive alliance, and there was never any agreement limiting the alliance’s expansion. Every state has a sovereign right to choose its partnerships and alliances, and NATO’s relationship with Ukraine is a matter for Ukraine and the 30 NATO Allies. Once again, Ukrainians should determine Ukraine’s future.

The United States acknowledges that Russia has voiced concerns, and that is why this past week, we, together with our European Allies and partners, including Germany, engaged in a series of high-level talks with Russia. We expressed our own serious concerns and shared some preliminary ideas on how we could work together to find a peaceful resolution. It is up to Russia now to show which path it wants

to take—whether it chooses to de-escalate tensions through diplomacy or, instead, seeks to further destabilize the region.

It is disconcerting to hear so many voices in this region defending Russia’s actions, as if Russia were the innocent victim. Many of you have experienced Russian occupation first-hand. Your voices carry the weight of history. Now is the time to call for Ukrainians’ sovereign right to determine their own future. Now is the time for Russian troops to return to their barracks to prove it has no intention of invading Ukraine. Now is the time to call out Russia’s unwillingness to constructively engage, whether in the Normandy Format or other venues, to peacefully resolve the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. I would welcome hearing more voices raising the banners of democracy and freedom—particularly in a region with such a proud history of reclaiming democracy for itself.

The orginal op-ed was published in the Thüringer Landeszeitung on January 17, 2022, and in the Sächsische Zeitung and Mitteldeutsche Zeitung on January 18, 2022.